Anatomy of a Soldier

by Harry Parker, 2016, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

This is a novel about a soldier fighting in an unknown country who steps on an IED.  He almost dies as a result, but somehow survives and loses both of his legs.

There are multiple story lines in the book: the story of the soldier himself, the insurgents they were fighting, a family in the country that sided with the government and the foreign soldiers who came to fight the insurgents, and the children who were on each side.  The circumstances surrounding each of these groups is very interesting.

The book is unusual for a couple of reasons.  First is the use of inanimate objects, such as bullets, a helmet, a bicycle, a cot, etc., to tell the story.  Usually a story is told in either the first or third person.  In this case, it’s told from the standpoint of multiple third objects.  This took a bit of getting used to on my part and I think it actually detracted a bit from the book.  Since each chapter was told by a different “thing”, it took a bit to determine what the “thing” actually was.  I think the story could have been told just as well, or better, by either the person involved or a third person.  In the end, however, the story came together and it wasn’t as much of a detraction as it was when I first started reading.

The second reason this book was a bit different was that it wasn’t told chronologically.  The story started actually with the soldier being blown up and then backtracked and went forward from there.  This could be somewhat disconcerting, but I found that it actually made the story more interesting as the author could describe the same event from several different viewpoints.

I didn’t like the book at all in the beginning as it seemed to have too much detail and jargon about the patrols that the soldiers were involved in and it was hard to follow because of the inanimate object storytelling.  After finishing the book, however, I felt it was a lot better than I thought it was going to be.  The story about a soldier injured in this way and everything that lead up to it and the impact of the injury is compelling.  When most of us are going about our daily lives we don’t have to think about what is going on in a war zone and how it impacts those who are grievously injured.  This book vividly brings it all to mind.2 1/2 stars

Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel

by Nancy Horan, audiobook CD, read by Kristin Potter, 2014, Random House Audio

This book is a novel based on the life of Robert Lewis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny.

The primary attraction of the book is it’s subject matter as Stevenson and his wife were very interesting characters.  The author does a pretty good job of capturing the essence of each of them and the reader can take away a lot of information about Stevenson and how he became the writer that he was.

The book, however, seemed to be way too long and the back and forth between Stevenson and Fanny became somewhat boring.  The author’s attempt to portray these individuals in the form of a novel didn’t seem entirely appropriate.  I have read many biographies that seemed to convey their subjects’ character and personality as well without having to create the fictitious dialogue that this format requires.

The writing in this novel is fairly good, although the story line seemed drawn out at times.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I might have had the story been a bit more brief.3 stars

The Summer Before The War

by Helen Simonson, 2016, Random House, New York

This novel centers on the experiences of a young woman who is trying to make her way in life just before WWI breaks out.

The story has some interesting moments but the characters are pretty standard fare; the good guy, the heroine, the jackass lord, the young schoolboy who is interested in his school subjects but is afraid to show it because of fear of being ridiculed by his classmates, etc.  The story also didn’t move along very well in places so it became a bit tedious.  In spite of all of the above, the writing is fairly good and it’s not a really bad read; just not great. 2 1/2 stars

The Nix: a novel

by Nathan Hill, 2016, a Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York

This book is pretty fascinating.  It interweaves topics such as computer game addiction with the anti-war protests that occurred during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, along with Nordic myths.  The author did a fair amount of research on all of these topics and managed to pull them together into a compelling novel.

As with many novels, however, the author relied heavily on some improbable circumstances which sometimes strained my belief.  I would cut him some slack in this regard as the story he spins is pretty fascinating.4 stars

Small Island, A Novel

by Andrea Levey, 2004, Picador Books, New York

This book is about a man and a woman from Jamaica who married and then immigrated to England after WWII.  It highlights the degree of racism that existed in England and the difficulty these individuals had in adjusting to their new surroundings.

The book wasn’t very interesting in the beginning but became more readable as I became more familiar with the characters.  The writing is pretty good and the story picked up once I was into it.  Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable read, but certainly not what I would categorize as a great book. 3 1/2 stars

Origins of a Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe, by Warren Zimmerman, 1999, Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York

Warren Zimmerman was the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Balkan War broke out in the 1990’s.  The book relates his meetings with the leaders of the various  republics (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia) that split from Yugoslavia and he provides his assessment of their personalities and ideologies.  In fact the book is a little bit like a memoir in addition to a historical work.

This book was a very hard read for me as the names were hard to keep track of and I didn’t know much about these countries or their histories.  Although I have rated this book fairly high due to its content, I found myself having a hard time staying with it  In fact, I usually started to fall asleep while reading it after only a few pages.

The most startling conclusion that I came to after reading this was the damage that certain individuals can inflict on their fellow countrymen when they implement their intentions, particularly when their intentions are fused with a extreme nationalistic ideology.  In our recent presidential campaign here in the U.S. one of our candidates has professed strong nationalistic views, i.e., America First.  As I read this book I was struck by how similar the personalities and ideology of Slobodan Milosevic and  Donald Trump seem to be.  Both seem to have had a strong dislike of foreigners, want to control the press (media), and harbor feelings that they have been somehow wronged by their enemies.  These are all the characteristics of a demagogue.  Scary.

While I greatly appreciate Zimmerman’s analysis of what caused the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, it was a bit depressing to read while at the same time our own presidential election was underway.  Both of these together was a bit too hard to take.

4 stars

Skink, No Surrender

by Carl Hiaasen, audiobook read by Kirby Heyborne, 2014, Random House, LLC

This is a very light weight novel about a girl who runs away to meet a guy she met on the internet and the subsequent search for her by her friend and a wacky old guy who was once the governor of Florida.  It is hardly believable but it was fun to listen to on our way to Florida.

2 1/2 stars

The English Girl

by Daniel Silva, audiobook read by George Guidall, 2013, Harper-Collins Publishers

This book was just plain terrible.  I was really disappointed because I had listened to another book by Silva that I really liked.  This one had a bit of a plot, but there was a voluminous amount of rehashing information from his other books.  Whenever a character was introduced, Silva spent an inordinate amount of time going over that character’s past history and episodes.  I kept wondering when he was going to tell me about what was going on in this book!

I can usually hang on to the bitter end, which is what I did with this book.  When the end of the book came, I felt myself breathing a huge sigh of relief.1 1/2 stars

Orphan Train: A Novel

by Cristina Baker Kline, audiobook read by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren, 2013, Audible, Inc.

This is a book about a young, alienated girl in Maine who begins to establish a relationship with an elderly lady.  She, at first, does not recognize that she has much in common with the lady, but begins to discover that they both were abandoned by their families at an early age.

Apparently, orphaned children were routinely sent on trains to the Midwest to find homes.  There they encountered many hardships which are vividly described in this book.  Despite the suffering, however, many of these young children went on to live successful and fulfilling lives

The book was enjoyable to listen to but, as I have experienced with other books, the ending seemed very rushed.  There was probably at least another chapter or two that needed to be written.  It’s disappointing to go through an entire books and leave with a feeling that the work was unfinished.

3 1/2 stars

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss

by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, 2016, Harper

This book is basically a compilation of emails that Anderson Cooper exchanged with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, when she was over ninety years old.  I was impressed with how sharp and articulat his mother is at this advanced age.

The book encapsulates the kind of conversation we should all have with our parents before they are gone.  My own conversation with my mother was not very deep.  I did have several good exchanges with my father before he died, but not as deep as the conversations that were captured in this book.

What I learned was that it is important to ask your parents probing questions about their lives.  There is a lot to learn.  It’s too late for me, but maybe I can have these  conversations with my sons before I, too, am no longer here.

3 1/2 stars