Monthly Archives: May 2010

Fatherland by Robert Harris

I have to admit, I was a little excited to read Fatherland.  It was recommended to me on the basis that it takes place in an alternate history.  I am a sucker for alternate histories, so I bit.  The premise sounded interesting:  what if Nazi Germany had won and survived World War II?  What type of society would that be?  Just such a nation is set as the backdrop for the story of a detective charged with solving the puzzle of the death of a high-ranking retired Nazi official.

It is unfortunate that the premise doesn’t lead to a truly unique story.  Our hero, Xavier March, is a detective in Berlin.  Called in to oversee the investigation of a body found in a river, March soon realizes that the death is more than a simple drowning.  He makes some quick discoveries as to who the dead man is, learning that he was one of the first high-ranking Nazi officers.

Then he is thrown off the case.  This is the first in the cliches embedded in Fatherland.  It makes liberal use of the tropes of how mysteries and thrillers work.  Despite the cleverness of the setting, Robert Harris merely took his story out of a real-life setting, like Russia, and plugged it into a slightly more interesting place and time.  He also has the woman who, at first, hated our hero, but came along and became the only person he can trust.  And we have the betrayals by people close to March — all of which were pretty predictable.

Even Xavier March’s feelings toward his own country are relatively predictable.  He’s always spurned the nationalistic activities and groups.  This makes it easier for him to accept the horrible secrets he later discovers, but it also makes it fairly unrealistic.  What person, raised and grown almost entirely in a land full of national and ethnic pride, is likely to be a malcontent?  He should, at least, be involved to an average degree.  I can’t help but think that, if he were miserable in Germany, he would have found a way to leave in a way acceptable to his government.  After all, his son isn’t a pull enough for him to stay once he realizes he needs to leave; he merely was going to give him some money.

I do think, however, that Harris’ setting is remarkable.  The way the society is structured is pretty believable.  The actions of people — the reporting of others, the shunning of those who don’t make the cut, the sterilization of people thought to have Jewish heritage, the fear of anyone in a uniform, the growth of an underground opposition — these are all clearly divined from what happened in the real (and failed) German Nazi state.  There, Harris has found something remarkably terrifying in its potential reality.

In whole, Fatherland‘s setting and society is wonderful.  The plot and characters are not.  For someone who enjoys the typical mystery thriller, this can, at least, provide for some entertaining and predictable reading.  But it almost certainly will disappointing those wanting more out of a book with such amazing promise.

Rating: 2.5/5

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The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier comments, in the foreword of the edition of The Chocolate War I read, that it took a while to find a publisher for this book.  Editors considered it too violent, too depressing for young adults to be reading.  One publishing house did offer to take it — if he changed the ending.  He passed.  I think that was a wise choice; without the realism those qualities give the book, it would be difficult to create interest in the characters and their actions.  As it is, The Chocolate War provides insight into the lives of teenage boys that is rarely provided.

The book follows many boys who attend a Catholic prep school in 1970s New England.  The hero is Jerry Renault, a freshman who has recently lost his mother, but we get the chance to be in many students’ heads, which is a big plus.  The reader can see what runs through the minds of a lot of different teenage boys, providing for a greater understanding of the events that occur, and why they had to happen that way.

In fact, I would say that Cormier has a gift for giving us wonderfully nuanced views of the boys.  Jerry, after seeing a girl who interests him, calls her house and talks to her (in a very cringe-worthy way) — and gets stunned and disappointed to hear her say the word “crap.”  It puts some of his following behavior into a very interesting light.  He is aware and mature enough to be able to understand some of what other people do and say, but remains naive about many facets of life.  He doesn’t even know his own heart sometimes.  Such is what leads him to inexplicably continue to refuse to sell chocolate for the school, despite his inaction raising his instructor’s ire and leads to increasing problems between him and the other students — especially the boys who secretly control a lot of the actions younger and weaker students take.

One place where the book could have been improved, however, is in the treatment of the adults in Jerry’s life.  Several are marginal characters, but at least three hold important places in the plot.  Perhaps because it is a book that has young adults in mind as its primary audience, the adults are mainly a mystery — we’re only allowed to guess at motivations and what the men actually know.  It would be intriguing to be able to sit in their shoes for a while and learn why they behaved in the ways they did.  I will say, though, that I think Jerry’s father was purposely crafted this way; he is a man unengaged in his son’s life.  He’s not supposed to be knowable, since he doesn’t know.

Cormier’s book also employs some language that dates it.  That might be a turn-off for more feckless teenage readers, which is sad for two reasons.  The first one is that they will miss a truly engaging and honest story.  The second is perhaps even more important than enjoying this particular book:  learning to read a variety of writing styles from all sorts of time periods is one part of learning to be well-rounded, in reading, thinking, and living.

The ending, I think, is one of the best I’ve seen in a young adult novel.  It doesn’t come to an entirely happy ending — in fact, it’s depressingly realistic.  Misbehavior goes unpunished.  Jerry isn’t able to reach an agreement with the other boys at school.  Almost the entirety of the student population is shown to be like bloodthirsty sheep, easily put in line and most likely grateful that it isn’t them who are the targets of the bullies’ anger.

There are a couple of moments of heroic behavior.  I would argue that Jerry’s ability to stand up for himself, no matter what the other students put him through, makes him admirable.  His friend, the Goober, has a strong sense of loyalty and eventually is able to do some amount of rescuing of Jerry when he cannot stand up for himself in the end.  There is a teacher without integrity or a sense of caring for his students, but there is also another who comes to Jerry’s aid during a critical point.

The Chocolate Wars is a superb piece of young adult fiction.  I would recommend it for teenagers, especially boys.  I suspect that many will be able to identify with at least some of what goes on — after all, bullying is an eternal issue.  Cormier crafted an insightful, quick read, suitable for those of us who are walking the same halls as these boys, and also those of us who remember being these boys.

Rating: 4/5

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov

If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a good alternate-history piece of speculative fiction.  There’s nothing like the navel-gazing pleasure a lot of these stories provide.  So what could be better than a book that posits that there are people out there creating new realities and new histories all the time?  As The End of Eternity proves, not a whole heck of a lot.

The story follows Andrew Harlan, a man who is responsible for making some of the changes in the flow of time in Reality.  He and all the other people who work to perform these changes live in what is called Eternity, an outside-time location.  Here people (mostly men) are trained from puberty to study Reality culture, preserve artifacts, decide on how to alter Reality, calculate Changes, and make those Changes.  Harlan is a Technician, which makes him one of the detested and feared group that actually makes the final decision and makes the Change.

Harlan is an isolated and lonely person.  His few interpersonal relationships are solely work-related — his first boss, whom he detests; the esteemed elder who takes him under his wing; the trainee he tutors in Primitive (pre-27th-century) history.  He has no family.  No Eternal does.  They give them up when they start training, and are never allowed to go back.

Thus, when Harlan is introduced to Noÿs, a (gasp!) woman working as a secretary for his former supervisor, he does not understand how his feelings of attraction are supposed to work.  He attempts to suppress them, but fails when he is sent to her time in Reality to do more study before a planned Change.  This is not surprising, seeing as he was sent to stay with her.

His infatuation leads him to take some drastic actions.  I’m not going to outline them here; that would ruin the surprise.  I will say, though, that the ending is not what I suspected, and shows, I think, a rather more nuanced view of the importance of the individual in relation to concerns for the overall good.

I had my misgivings about Asimov when I read I, Robot a couple of months back, and I hesitated in requesting this book by him through inter-library loan.  This, however, is worth it.  Rather than a woman who is overly emotional, Noÿs is feminine but also competent.  She is a rarity in the Eternal world, but is, from the start, capable of being both openly loving and intellectually capable — in other words, she’s like most actual women.

Harlan responds to this, and does some interesting things in response.  He is a good study in the book-smart, experience-dumb bookworms and nerds that exist in sufficient numbers for them to have been a tried and true group for the last century, at least.  While Noÿs’ reactions are real, his are artificial at first.  He can’t trust them, and has to grow through the emotional atrophy his training and occupation impose.  While his decisions, at times, seem to be overreactions, they show that Asimov understood that men are just as capable of letting their emotions get the best of them.

This is a fantastic exploration of both reality and relationships.  It made me surprised every time I looked up at the clock — how could another hour have gone by?  That’s the measure of a good book.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler

Disease is a scary thing.  It can disturb an entire life’s worth of planning in a frighteningly short amount of time.  It has the power to separate people from those they love most.  It can make the most mundane of actions impossible to perform.  Bruce Feiler, finding himself seriously ill, made the decision to not allow his cancer to sever all ties with his daughters.  He documents his steps to make this happen, and it’s a good thing he did.

If nothing else, I can confidently say Bruce Feiler has good people in his life, most likely because he himself is a good person.  He is lucky enough to have six men he feels would be able to stand in for him and provide guidance for his daughters.  These are also men who come to provide for him — they visit while he’s sick, they talk to him frankly about how they would help his daughters in their times of need.  This book is a tribute to male friendships, and I found it very interesting to read for that aspect alone.

But this is also a story about how the past shapes the present.  Feiler’s own father and grandfathers have interesting stories that reflect how they ended up parenting.  His friends’ childhoods altered how those men think of parenting, friendship, and life.  Even Feiler’s disease can’t escape connections with history– his cancer-affected leg is the same one that he shattered as a child when he was hit by a car.

His story is touching, but I had a couple of issues with the structure of the book.  There are two narratives winding themselves through this book:  the standard parts that focus on telling the reader about one of the dads, or about Feiler’s back-story, or about meeting his wife.  The other is made up of letters:  one he wrote to the dads, one he wrote to his daughters, and several he wrote during the course of his illness to friends and family.  The two don’t feel smoothly-joined to me.  There are points where the reader hears about certain aspects a couple of different times, which I don’t particularly like.  I would rather not have the everyday events semi-sequestered in the newsletters, seeing as the rest of the book also contains a good amount of the everyday.

I also can’t help but think that Feiler could do with a little more candor.  It was a bit exhausting reading about all the positivity in his life, with very little shown of the more realistic moods of anyone, the children included.  We hear about his crying and the occasionally-off behavior of the twins, but most of it feels glossed over in order to portray everyone involved in the best light possible.  Having been seriously ill myself, some of the coping narrative doesn’t resonate with my own experiences.  It could be that we’re just different people, but I think that he is purposely holding back on the bad times for some reason.  Whether that is to avoid appearing weak, or to protect his children, or for some other reason, I don’t know.

I like his message.  I really like the non-letter parts of the book.  I’m glad that he is doing well, and that he decided to share his story.  I’m hoping he’ll write something else about his daughters, something in which they are all healthy and don’t have to worry about getting the marrow out of the moment.  I suspect they’re pretty good at doing that without trying.

Rating: 3.5/5

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The High King by Lloyd Alexander

So we’ve come to the end of the Tales of Prydain.  Lloyd Alexander’s young adult fantasy series about Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper with a most interesting history, is tied up neatly here, with small events occurring far in the past making big differences in the end of the story.  It makes for a rich conclusion, made bittersweet by the more serious tone Alexander employs.

The story starts with Taran and his companions setting off to assist Gwydion with the task of stopping Arawn from achieving total control over Prydain once and for all.  On the road to completing this task, the group faces down adversity from varied sources.  In these challenges, Taran leads his followers admirably, facing difficult choices well — not without debate and doubt, but always with a mind as to what’s best for his companions and his land.

One thing that sets this book apart from the others is the number of notable deaths that occur.  I won’t say who, but many of the people Taran holds dear end up falling along the way.  The darker tone creates a mood of foreboding and sadness that is appropriate; after all, we are seeking the end of an evil man.  Because of this, the book also has a greater sense of urgency than the previous four, with a more doubtful ending — indeed, it may not be the ending the reader expects.

The culmination of this series is the development of a boy into a man.  Before our eyes, Taran has gone from a headstrong youth eager for a fight to a man who seeks truth and wisdom.  It’s a worthy example for younger readers to be exposed to.  For those of us who are older, we get to enjoy his development (and perhaps be reminded of our own paths of growth).

The Chronicles of Prydain have come to their end.  Yet the lessons they teach — that we can shape our own destiny, that we should strive for the correct path and not the easy one, that true friends are worth sacrificing for — endure.  What a treasure of a series.

Rating: 5/5

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Moses: A Life by Jonathan Kirsch

One of my favorite traditions is watching The Ten Commandments on TV — the story as told by Cecil B. DeMille is a grand piece of cinematic achievement.  Now, after having read Moses: A Life, I appreciate the story of the freeing of the Hebrew slaves and the following forty years of wandering in a wholly new way.

Jonathan Kirsch is not a new author to me.  I have previously read The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, which I thought was superb.  He brings the same spirit to this book, explaining Biblical accounts that can, at times, be confusing, contradictory, and inscrutable.  His writing is clear and without an obvious bias; the reader doesn’t know whether Kirsch is a religious man or an atheist.  He is respectful while being intellectually honest about the historical and contemporary thoughts on Moses and his story.

One of the big surprises to me with the story of Moses is really how little is known about the man.  The Bible, apparently, isn’t clear as to whether Aaron and Miriam were his siblings.  Nor do we know what he did with his time between childhood and the time he started on his quest to free the Hebrews from slavery.  It isn’t even known whether he was an Israelite — it’s possible he was a rogue Egyptian prince!  A lot of what we think we know of Moses cannot be found in the Bible.  Tales and traditions about him can be found in the Midrash as well as other traditional Jewish writings.

Another intriguing part of Moses’ story is his complicated relationship with God.  The common view is of Moses as a servant of God, performing as a go-between for God with the Israelites.  He strikes down polytheism, provides his people with a set of laws to live by, knows how to lead his people and bring them to their eventual homeland — even if he does take forty years to do what should have taken a few weeks.

Moses does do these things.  But he also cajoles God, complains to God, and, at a couple of points, threatens him.  He does tell the Israelites that Yahweh is their one God, but doesn’t actually rule out the idea that there are other gods.  He himself creates some objects that might be considered idols or religious objects with a pagan past, reflecting the cultural flux of the time.  He brings us the Law of God, that’s true, but it’s a set of laws that no one person can completely follow.  He often is cowardly and seeks to avoid conflict unless he is assured of having the upper hand.  He brings the Hebrew people to the Promised Land, but cannot go himself, and faces almost constant grumbling, threats, and attempted mutiny by the very people he is supposed to be delivering to freedom.  Truly, his life was a hard one.

According to tradition, Moses was the author of the Torah (or Pentateuch).  Kirsch painstakingly explains about the various actual authors of the first five books of the Bible:  the Yahwehist (J), the Elohist (E), the Priestly (P), and the Deuterotomist (D), plus the Redactionists (R), who pulled the books together from the varied sources.  This explains the confusing and contradictory stories, and why Moses appears to be marginalized or displayed in an unflattering light in some of the text — certainly one man would not write about himself being a secondary figure in some pretty crucial points of the overall story.

The one drawback to this book is that it isn’t structured like The Harlot By the Side of the Road does.  That book has a narrative story, followed by the Biblical scholarship that explains why the story is thought to be that way.  This one has the story and scholarship interspersed, and I think that it might be easier for the reader to have the story and then the research and thought that makes that depiction the one the Bible most likely intends to put forth.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot about a central figure of Western religion.  He is no longer, in my eyes, a one-dimensional hero-figure.  He is a man with problems and with flaws.  But he is also a man who can teach us to have a more personal spirituality, and to be truthful to our faith.

Rating: 4.5/5

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