For the love of language (and politics), plus comments on a few of the latest books I've read

I find myself compelled to point out that Sarah Palin is suffering from "Aleutians of grandeur."

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I just finished a few books sent to me by my brother, lent by friends, and some that I even purchased (that should make the authors here happy, though if they only knew how many books I have, they might forgive my current quasi-moratorium on buying more). These recently-read books include "Hitler's Peace" by Philip Kerr, which was not as engaging as his most engaging books, and at times seemed awkward or forced, but was compelling, nonetheless, and ultimately depressing for more reasons than I care to remember. Prior to that I read "Vicious Circle" by Robert Littell, "The Mayor of Lexington Avenue" by James Shehan, some of "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, and the single volume containing the novels"Fatherland" and "Enigma" by Robert Harris. EDIT: here are a few additional recent reads I should have included: "Water Touching Stone" by Eliot Pattison (excellent), "Spook Country" by William Gibson (judged by the highest standards, very good), "The Painter of Battles: A Novel" by Arturo Perez-Reverte (see below).

"Collapse" is a fascinating book that can be read in bits and pieces, or straight through. I'm still filling in the parts I skipped over, aided in my journey by never using a bookmark and continually starting up in random places (a Dadaist approach, perhaps, but don't you feel the Dadaists need a little more attention now and then?). "Collapse" offers a lot of hope while also documenting many monumental failures of societies throughout history; it comes from the author of the highly touted "Guns, Germs and Steel," also touted (and toted) by my high school age son. I haven't read "Guns, Germs ..." yet.

The other books I listed are all very good or better, though "The Mayor of Lexington Avenue" is excellent for 95% of the book, and just OK for the other 5% (don't hold me to the numbers, these are impressionistic statistics). Still, "The Mayor of..." is quite an amazing first novel, with outstanding characters, plot and setting that stretch over two generations, from the poor to the rich and powerful, and from New York to a Florida backwater. I think that if the author had grappled with one less issue or subplot, the book would have remained uniformly outstanding. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended.

Although I've read all of Littell's other books except one, I had made a conscious decision not to read "Vicious Circle." I felt the same way when "Little Drummer Girl" came out- at the time that I just couldn't handle the subject matter as "entertainment," though, of course, the book is far deeper than that comment implies. I know this because, after about ten years, I broke down and read Le Carre's take on the Middle East, and was glad I did, and, after my brother sent me "Vicious Circle" I broke down again and read it as well. Littell writes so well that I found myself laughing out loud in the middle of very tense scenes. As always, his wonderful language and characters are brilliantly crafted. Still, Israeli and Palestinian people and issues are not an easy thing to read about, especially when they are kidnapping, murdering, torturing and negotiating for peace. I felt that Littell was extremely balanced in his treatment of all sides, and the book is gripping from start to end. Unfortunately, I cried a lot more than I laughed, but that comes with the territory in this case.

The books by Harris left me a bit flat, Enigma more so than Fatherland. I have to say that the premise of "Fatherland" is very clever, perhaps brilliant, and was used to build up a remarkable, alternative universe, though one where the truth will out, given time. The premise is that Germany won WW2 and, among other consequences, no GI's liberated any concentration camps. The storyline itself isn't as strong as other aspects of the book, though it serves as a good thriller with chilling revelations. Enigma perhaps simply wasn't the book I was expecting- I kept looking for that book on each page and coming up empty. It is definitely worth reading, however.

(added in EDIT) "The Painter of Battles" by Perez-Reverte is an unusual book. It is by far the shortest book by the author, as far as I know, but it took me an unusually long time to read. There are a lot of pithy sentences and analyses of paintings and warfare, from ancient to modern. Not that this is a textbook by any means: it is a psychological thriller in some ways, and the tension can reach high levels, but is also a no-holds-barred examination of modern morality, warfare and lifestyles. The language demands an attention to detail that I could not always provide (say at the end of a long day) and I wasn't always alert enough to grasp the point, though I rarely have this issue with books (or with the books I choose to read, in any event). I'm not sure I'm erudite enough to grasp all of this novel, either. My knowledge of art history is fairly spotty- I've seen a lot but haven't studied it, so I tend to forget the details. Nevertheless, the stories within the novel are well worth reading since they are based on real events, more or less, events which have been highly significant to those who suffered them, but probably given little thought by most people who did not experience them, even as an observer. As with quantum physics, we see that the observer changes the "experiment" or experience, and that the consequences can be tragic. I'd label this a "must read"!

That's it for my capsule summaries and other comments of the day. I haven't logged in here in quite a while, and my whole blogging effort has lost a lot of steam in the mean time, though you might enjoy my latest post, an author interview with Shobhan Bantwal here.

© 2008 James K. Bashkin

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