Monday, April 23, 2018

Taylor Downing's 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink


Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink is a thrilling, frightening, and thought-provoking account of a period in history when the world came closest to nuclear annihilation. Through his descriptions of US and Soviet leadership, and events prior to, and during, 1983, what emerges is a picture of two sides who knew almost nothing about how the other side thought, and of simple misinterpretations and miscalculations that came disturbingly close to causing catastrophic events. Throughout the book, Downing does an outstanding job of explaining complex, difficult topics in a way that makes it easy for the lay person to understand and follow.  Whether he is describing the events that led to the Soviets shooting down KAL 007, the spycraft of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, or the November 1983 war game “Able Archer” that almost led to nuclear war, Downing writes clearly, compellingly, and persuasively.  He has managed to craft a careful and convincing argument about the importance and centrality of Able Archer and its consequences, while writing in a way that keeps the reader turning pages frantically.  His discussion of the aftermath of Able Archer, and particularly of the relationship that develops between Reagan and Gorbachev, is measured and unsentimental.  He does not offer a neat, tidy resolution to the narrative.  He makes it clear that Reagan and Gorbachev missed opportunities for radical change and never agreed ultimately on the key issue of the “Star Wars” defense initiative.  What the end of the book does strongly suggest is the importance of genuine intelligence, careful and objective analysis, and diplomacy that builds out from a solid understanding of the other side.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Classics Club Spin List


1 Boswell, James The Life of Samuel Johnson
2 Dos Passos, John Manhattan Transfer
3 Dickens, Charles Great Expectations
4 Eliot, George Romola
5 Cervantes, Miguel Don Quixote
7 Gissing, George New Grub Street
8 Forster, E. M.  A Passage to India
9 Faulkner, William Absalom! Absalom!
9 Hawthorne, Nathaniel The Marble Faun
10 Heller, Joseph Catch-22
11 Musil, Robert The Man without Qualities
12 Richardson, Samuel Clarissa
13 Lessing, Doris The Golden Notebook
14 Thackeray, William Pendennis
15 Mahfouz, Naguib Palace Walk
16 Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
17 Stendhal Charterhouse of Parma
18 Stoker, Bram Dracula
19 Trollope, Anthony Barchester Towers
20 Zamiatin, Yevgeny We

Monday, July 17, 2017

High summer readathon

The two-week readathon hosted by Seasons of Reading has officially begun.  Rather than lay out a my plan for the whole time, here's a list of a few books that I plan to finish over the first couple of days:

William Boyd, Restless--I've got about 100 pages left
Polina Dashkova, Madness Treads Lightly--about 150 pages left
Neal Stephenson, Seveneves--about 150 pages left

We'll see where I go after that.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Blendi Fevziu's Enver Hodxa

I read Enver Hodxa with great interest.  I knew nothing about him prior to reading this, and only slightly more about Albania.  I think this is an important book, because it is accessible and tells a story of a dictator lacking in any sense of human connection.  One of the things that is most striking about Hodxa's story is the fact that the only people with whom he was close but did not were the members of his immediate family.  Read the book, and you learn one thing:  only Enver survived among his colleagues, comrades, and friends.

While the writing is good, I thought that the first 2/3 of the book lacked a clear, strong organizing structure.  The last section, which essentially is organized around the final purge and then Hodxa's declining health and death, was the strongest. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Yasmine Al-Rashidi's Chronicles of a Last Summer

The most impressive thing I find in this novel is the way the author changes the voice of the narrator to reflect her age in the three sections from different times in her life:  1984, 1998, and 2014.  In the first section, she's a young girl, and the syntax reflects convincingly how a young girl would talk.  The sentences are short and simple, assertive without condition.  Here's an example:  "People stared at us.  There were policemen everywhere.  Outside, inside . . .  Mama took my hand.  She pulled me.  We walked up the big marble staircase."  She also reports what she hears without much commentary on it:  "Uncle said co-ops exist because of Nasser's mistakes."  In the 1998 section, as a young woman she has become a deeper, more expansive thinker, wrestling with some way to deal with her history and Egypt's:  "I've taken to writing letters to people who don't exist or once existed or exist only as statues or gods."  In the final section, the narrator's voice seems both nostalgic (she talks about her dead Uncle and what she would say to him) and certain:  She wants to preserve the "older memories" and not let them get erased by the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 or 2013.  The tension between permanence and change is prevalent throughout the novel.  On the one hand, the narrator lives with her mother in the house in which her mother was born.  The house contains memories of generations of her family, and is a constant and steadying space for the narrator.  Outside the doors, however, the Egypt she experiences is in an almost perpetual state of change, often violently effected:  Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi, Mansour, Sisi.  The novel ends on the verge of the permanence ad history of the house going away. 

This is a beautifully written novel, seductive and compelling.  I was eager to read more not because of the plot, but because of the experience of reading and enjoying the delicious language and smart structure of the novel.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Marcus Segdwick's Mister Memory

I enjoyed Mister Memory very much, and found myself drawn along through the unfolding of the case.  The novel is a page-turner, and I found that I could not put it down once I got into it. Characters such as Petit and Ondine are developed well, and Sedgwick did a good job of staging the relationship between Morel and Marcel.

The one weakness of the novel, however, is the ending.  I thought it was anti-climatic and flat.  There was also an unnecessary turn to broad philosophical statements that took away from the trajectory of the plot.

That said, Mister Memory is a well-crafted and entertaining exploration of human depravity and the dangers and pain of memory.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Boris Akunin's The State Councilor

I enjoyed reading the first book of the Earst Fandorin series a couple of years ago, and was eager to read The State Councilor, but I was greatly disappointed by the novel.  Fandorin is overshadowed by several other characters, and at times his main contribution seems to be standing quietly while things are happening to/around him.  He doesn't seem particularly clever or insightful, and certainly doesn't rise, in this novel, to the level of a character with a series named for him.  Part of the problem might be that the novel itself seems neither carefully plotted nor interesting.  I kept reading it because I assumed that something incredible was about to happen in the pages ahead.  I thought that was starting to happen as the baths episode unfolded, but it never actually did.  Not only was that episode improbable, but it also seemed like Akunin had rushed to finish it.  The result there, as in other parts of the novel, was that it felt hastily completed.

It is possible that the novel was more nuanced in Russian, and the translation didn't capture subtleties throughout the novel.  Fandorin's final act in the novel might, for instance, have seemed more clearly set up in the original language.  In this translation, it seemed almost unrelated to the rest of the novel.
In the end, The State Councilor is pretty pedestrian stuff.