Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Spectra; First Thus edition (August 1, 1993)
ISBN-13: 978-0553562736
Mass Market Paperback: 592 pages
Originally published in hardcover, 1992
Date read: January 18, 2010

This book came to me by way of a friend at work.  We were in the back office having one of those quick exchanges about books and subject matter preference that book lovers engage in regularly.  I don't recall how the conversation started, but somehow it came up that I liked the Middle Ages and she mentioned just having finished Doomsday Book.  It sounded like a cool story, but we were out of it at the store.  (Have I mentioned that  I work at a bookstore?)   I think my co-worker's sister recommended it to her, she recommended it to me and, after talking about it one day in the break room after I finished it, another colleague decided to read it.  I love how books get passed around like that.  It builds a wonderful sense of camaraderie as well as a shared history.  It's little wonder that the One Book, One _______ (insert your town or school name here) program has swept the country.

This isn't a book I would normally pick up on my own mainly because I don't browse the sci-fi/fantasy section.  But when I arrived at work for my next shift after our initial conversation, the book was waiting for me in my locker.  I decided it was meant to be.  Doomsday Book is a thick novel, but don't let that put you off.  The delightful characters and suspenseful plot make it a pretty quick read.

A major theme in the book is that although technology & health science have grown tremendously from the 14th to the 21st century, human nature apparently has not.  There are wonderfully kind and noble people in both time periods, people who enjoy life and who want to do the right thing.  There are no classic evil villains in this book, none of the sort who set out to intentionally harm others.  The "bad guy" in this novel is incompetence, delusions of self-importance, selfishness, religious obsessives who lack love, and fear.  Make that Fear, with a capitol "F."  Examples of these types of people and/or character traits abound in both the 14th and the 21st centuries, and if these folks don't muck things up for others, they at least make people want to run and hide until the coast is clear.  Of course at least one of these incompetent, impatient, glory-seeking nincompoops is in a position of authority . . . and so the story begins.

The gist of the story is this:  it's the year 2045 and historians time travel to get first hand experience of the period they're studying.  Its Christmas time and the Medieval department of Oxford is preparing to send a young historian, Kivrin Engle, to the Middle Ages, specifically to the year 1320.  No one has traveled that far back into time yet.  The technology is fairly accurate in terms of "dropping" historians into a location, but no one knows how much time "slippage" there will be in sending someone that far back in time.  Will it be five minutes?  Five years?  Fifty years?  The Black Death hit Oxford in 1348, so the question of time is more important than simply wearing clothes that may be out-dated.  Kivrin's mentor, the cautious Professor Dunworthy, does not think it wise to send a young, unaccompanied woman into the Middle Ages where cut-throats, rapists, and disease thrive.  He's a professor of 20th Century History, but does all he can to help insure Kivrin will be as prepared as possible to meet the challenges of the Middle Ages.  Kivrin has studied history, culture, and languages in preparation for this adventure, and has had a full round of immune system enhancers.

But forces beyond anyone's control arise to cause havoc during both Kivrin's drop and her mission as well as in the "safe" environment of Oxford in 2054.  Will Kivrin be able to return or will she be stuck in the Middle Ages for ever?  Will she even survive the Middle Ages?  Will Professor Dunworthy be able to get Kivrin back?  Can he fight his way through the roadblocks his incompetent colleague has thrown up?  Will anyone in Oxford be left to help her return?

As it so often happens, a book that was never even on my radar ends up being one of the most enjoyable books that I've read in a long time.  I highly recommend Doomsday Book to history buffs, sci-fi/fantasy fans, and those who like to sink into a good story.  I don't put a whole lot of stock in book awards (unless, of course, one of my favorite authors wins one), but Doomsday won the Hugo award and the Nebula award.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Title: A Reliable Wife
Author: Robert Goolrick
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1565129771
Date read: January 5, 2010

The bookstore where I work received an advance reader copy of this novel a few weeks before it was released in paperback.  The time period (1907) and location (Wisconsin) rather than the storyline is what prompted me to take the book home.  If you're looking for a quick, roller-coaster ride of a read, pick up this book.  It's currently #1 on the NYT best-seller list.

I was on the fence during the first two chapters and then suddenly I couldn't put the book down and finished it in less than 24 hours (and I'm not a particularly fast reader). This story about the intertwining lives of three characters reads like a grand, sweeping narrative. I found myself talking to the characters, arguing with them not to do this or instead to do that. And every time I thought I knew where the book was headed, something unexpected but completely in line with the characters' motivation would happen and throw me off course...and keep me turning the pages. Goolrick is a master at character development--I really felt the pain, hopes, and desires of each character, even the minor characters. One reviewer claims that there's gratuitous sex, but I disagree. The sex is completely in line with the characterizations and simply part of the landscape of the story.  I look forward to Goolrick's next novel.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

An Honorable German by Charles McCain

Title: An Honorable German: A Novel of World War II
Author: Charles McCain
Publisher: NY: Hachette Book Group, 2009
ISBN-13: 978-0446538985
**Mass Market Paperback release: May 31, 2010**
Date read: January 3, 2010

This book caught my eye on the new book display at my town’s public library. An Honorable German is the story of Maximillian (Max) Brekendorf, an officer of the German Navy during WWII. The action of the book begins on September 30, 1939 and ends on September 10, 1944. The story of Max’s war experience shows the slow destruction of the naval traditions that were Max’s passion as well as the repeated bombings of Berlin and the decline of Nazi Germany.   There are some great sea battles, details about life aboard ship and a U-boat, and tensions between true-believer Nazis and those who are not.

I love seafaring books and that’s the main reason I decided to read the book, but I also thought it would be interesting to read a novel from the perspective of a German naval officer. A few years ago I read Shadow Divers and explored the U505 exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, so I had some familiarity with the topic.

The novel gives a glimpse of what it may have been like for a career military man confronted with the political dictatorship of Hitler and National Socialism, which, on the extreme right, wanted to see the eradication of all forms of rank and status. Max had no interest in politics. He’d wanted to serve in the navy since he was a young boy and is trained at the prestigious Marineschule Mürwik.

While McCain makes the point that naval officers were not allowed to join the Nazi Party, through various characters he makes it clear that there were party fanatics in the navy, particularly toward the later years of the war when younger men who were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth became old enough to serve. Basically, Max is a thinking, moral man, a naval officer who wants to do the right thing and that isn’t always in line with Nazi policy. He is on a mission to sink enemy ships, but he also follows the custom of the sea and ensures survivors are rescued and treated well.

The novel also shows the steady destruction of the city of Berlin and how men who were away fighting the war didn’t necessarily know the reality of the conditions that their loved ones were experiencing or, if they did, didn’t comprehend the nightmare they were living. There is a striking contrast between Max’s life at sea: cruising around for days or weeks trying to find an enemy ship to attack vs. being a civilian in Berlin who experiences regular hours-long, nerve shattering airplane bombings and seeing their loved ones killed and the city turned to rubble. Coming home on leave after a long deployment to see a beautiful city after months/years of bombing was certainly a shock, but it was also a reality check against the official Nazi party propaganda that claimed they were on their way to winning the war.

McCain’s offers a succinct description of the RAF’s bombing method:
“They began with blockbuster high-explosive bombs to blow the roofs off buildings and blow the windows in, exposing wooden beams and interiors, giving fire endless pathways along which to spread and providing through-drafts of air to rush it along. Then came the small incendiary bombs, falling in their hundreds of thousands into buildings; and then the fires began. Fires medieval in their terror; fires that could not be extinguished because they were composed of burning phosphorus; liquid fire that flowed in burning streams down gutters and into the basements where women and children took shelter; fire so terrible, fire so merciless, there was nothing to do but run from it with all the strength God had given you; fire spreading so fast that running with all your strength was never enough. Fire so hot it set the very asphalt in the street ablaze and if your feet became stuck in the liquid tar, you burned like a torch, your screams unheard over the roaring of the firestorm. This was the hell brought down on Hamburg by the Tommies, and now they were bringing it to Berlin” (263). And then when survivors were digging out those who may still be alive, “Occasional explosions sounded in the distance as delayed –fuse bombs went off—designed to take out the rescuers and onlookers who gathered after a raid” (269). It also happened that water mains were shattered during the bombing and people trapped in the shelter drowned (270).

Here are some examples of the “smaller” details McCain includes:
  •  The government prohibited the public expression of mourning for a soldier who died because it was considered unpatriotic. After all, it was an honor for a husband/son/brother to give his life for the Führer (274). 
  •  Returning to Berlin Max notes that someone wrote in chalk on the remaining portion of a building’s wall: “All members of the Schleicher family are dead” (209).
  •  All German naval ships employed Chinese laundrymen (15).
  •  Ship decks were made of teak wood because it doesn’t splinter when hit by shells. In the days before ships were made of steel, most casualties in sea battles came from flying splinters (55).
An Honorable German is McCain’s first novel and although it is a bit uneven—the tension between the fanatical Nazis and Max is simplistic at times and the POW section is lacking in atmosphere and tension that infuses other parts of the book—I highly recommend this novel to readers who like military fiction, thrillers, or German history.

Deborah Grosvenor is McCain’s agent. She’s the agent that discovered Tom Clancy (not that I am a big Clancy fan, but that is saying something), so it’s probably a safe assumption to say we’ll see more naval novels from McCain. I hope so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The point of this blog and about me

Point of this blog: This blog is simply a place for me to post my thoughts about the books I've read and ramblings about books, authors, and book culture in general.  I hope that those of you who may read it will share your own reading & book experiences as well.

About me:   Books have been a big part of my life since I was in middle school.  It was then that I discovered reading for my own pleasure.  Prior to that I don't recall reading for pleasure.  Well, that's not exactly true.  When I was really little--before school almost ruined reading for me--I loved my Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary (1964), The Story of Ping (1933), Saucy (1968) and a few other books from our home and/or the public library, but school reading was the pits.

Other than our school librarian, Miss Warchol, reading Where the Wild Things Are, I don’t recall any of the required school reading that I did prior to the 8th grade.  My preferred leisure activities were riding my bike, swimming, garbage picking with my cousin Danny, playing softball or swift, pickup football, climbing trees, jumping garage roofs, skeetching in the winter, sledding, having snowball fights, etc., basically anything you could do outside that did not involve harming animals.  I even put up very little resistance when I was told to mow the lawn or water the vegetable garden. I loved to shovel snow.

 But then one day toward the end of the 7th grade while slouching on my desk in Mr. Fruits's social studies class flipping through a Scholastic catalog, my slightly glazed-over eyes fell upon an ad for the book DRACULA.  Whoa, I sat up.  They made a book out of Dracula?  No way!  He was my favorite character on Creature Features.  I even had one of those plastic Dracula models.  But a book about Dracula?  Well, I just had to check it out.  That evening I asked my parents if I could order the book and they jumped at the opportunity to support any interest I showed in a school related activity, especially reading.  Due to my propensity for outdoor activities, I wasn't exactly a rock star in the classroom.   And, I should add, both of my parents are/were BIG READERS.

When Dracula (1897) arrived I was surprised and a bit daunted by how thick it was.  Much thicker than any book I'd attempted before.   But it was about Dracula and the book’s description sounded just like the Bela Lugosi movie that I'd seen, so I was determined to give it a go.  (A note to younger readers: this was before The Internet when movie adaptations of books are often made obvious in a simple Google search of a book’s title, and even before VHS & DVDs when you watched a movie "live" on the TV or not at all, or at least not until a network decided to air it again.)

Anyway, in my memory it seems like I spent the entire summer lying on the green & white stripped canvas hammock in our yard reading Dracula.  Of course I read the book outside.  That must have been a sort of unconscious compromise: “Okay, I’ll give this book a try, but only if I read it outside where I normally play.”  I can still feel what it felt like to lay on that hammock with my often sweaty head on the pillow and the birds swooping over me as they flew to and from the chestnut tree under which I lay.  I can feel the dry paper of the book in my hands, smell a neighbor's lawn as they cut it and hear the whir of the mower blades.  I even remember noticing the quality of light and shadow as the sun moved across the sky throughout the afternoon.

I remember it took me a while to get into a flow of reading Dracula due to the language and writing style.  It wasn't exactly a Hardy Boys level reading experience.  But looking back I'm proud of my younger self for sticking it out because the book truly changed my life.  I read that book with a sense of discovery because it not only filled in the richness of the movie, it also gave me the pleasure of immersing myself in a rich & detailed story, of getting to know characters & being in their shoes, of spending time in a foreign land and experiencing a time period gone by.

Dracula was the book that propelled me into the joys of having one book lead to another and then that one to yet another.  I became a reader that summer.   What book did it for you?
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