Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Couple Short Book Reviews

I have a bad tendency (shared by many, I know) of starting a new book before I've finished the last one. Sometimes I may have three or four things going on at the same time. Stupid, I think, but there it is.

And so it is now. I'm in the middle of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and have been working simultaneously on Carlos Ruiz Zafón's 2001 novel The Shadow of the Wind, and also listening to the audiobook of Erik Larson's Thunderstruck. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a follow-on to Jonathon Safran Foer's recent book Eating Animals, and I'm making halting progress on that one. As with Eating Animals, it's full of compelling information but I fear I haven't the spine or temperament or lifestyle to follow the advice given.

With our winter cruise coming up, I wanted something fun to read. After my faux pas in choosing Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road for last year's cruise (shockingly, reading about life in the nuclear winter did little to foster a festive vacation cheer), I figured I ought to read something more uplifting this year than a chronicle of how big business is killing us with our food.

Enter The Shadow of the Wind. I picked this up on impulse as a fun bit of crime fiction (I know, I know; why is that good vacation reading?), and it did not disappoint. Set in Barcelona during the first third of the 20th Century, it tells of a young boy who becomes obsessed with an obscure author, only to find that someone is systematically hunting this author's books down and destroying them. The boy's attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery takes years, and his life takes a number of traumatic and surreal turns along the way.

This is not a book about great underlying principles; indeed, it's not about anything but a kind of whodunit adventure. To his credit, Zafón always grounds the far-fetched bits of his story (eventually) in something plausible, so that there's no Magic Jesus making the plot work. Having said that, the hot breath of reality isn't really what makes the story go round. It strikes me as a great summer read.

I'd give this one a solid B.

The other book, Erik Larson's Thunderstruck, was quite a page-turner. He takes the same approach as that employed in his 2003 book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I read this a couple years back and enjoyed it a good deal (I'm actually surprised to see I didn't put up my two cents' worth about it at the time). In that book, Larson juxtaposes two contemporaneous historical events which would seem to have nothing to do with each other: the World's Columbian Expo held in Chicago in 1893, and the rise at the same time and place of America's first serial killer, one H.H. Holmes. The book is a novelization of actual events, and the characters real people. I could hardly put it down.

Thunderstruck so closely follows the structure of that earlier book that it's tempting to believe Larson just plugged different facts into the outline of Devil. I scanned Thunderstruck's cover when it was first published, but I avoided buying it because I felt it was just rehashing the old plot line. But when I ran across it on my library's audiobook shelves I decided to give it a whirl. (And indeed why shouldn't the formula work brilliantly twice? Dick Wolf's Law and Order has been plugging different facts into the same template weekly with great success for 20 years.) It's entirely my own good fortune that I looked again, as this one was another first-rate potboiler.

The events being juxtaposed here are the invention of wireless telegraphy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries--a technology so unfathomable when it debuted that it seemed positively supernatural (and the invention and refinement of which was a very contentious business)--and one of England's most notorious murders. These two stories are given entirely distinct treatments, almost like two separate books with their chapters interlaced, until the book's end. But we learn then that the events are indeed linked: the murderer was making his escape from England on a ship, and the nascent ship-to-shore communications were used here both to track down and capture the murderer and also to keep an engrossed public informed almost in real time about events that were happening an ocean and a continent away.

Larson is adroit in setting scenes, and we get great character studies about all the main players. (As an aside, the audiobook was read by semi-famous actor Bob Balaban, who has a good voice for a 12-hour acquaintance.) I give him high marks for making a compelling story out of events nearly lost to history; we are much entertained and even a little schooled at the same time.

Grade: A-

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

That is me to a "T". I'm always in the middle of 3 or so books. Right now, it is Why does E=mc2, Is this a great game, or what? by Tim Kurkjian, and The Algebraist by Iain Banks.