Fall of Giants

by Ken Follett, 2010, Dutton, published by the Penguin Group, New York

This book was a disappointment.  Follett has attempted to create a great historical trilogy and this is the first book in this effort.  The book is written in a similar fashion as his previous novels, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, in that he picks out individuals in various walks of life and traces their lives through various historical events.  But, unlike the previous novels which were set in much earlier times, Fall of Giants takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century and extends through World War I.  Perhaps it’s because the timeframe is much more recent that Follett’s historical novel becomes so much more trite.

Follett’s characters are extremely one-dimensional.  It seems that once they get identified with a particular cause or philosophy, they remain totally rigid and unable to be at all flexible in their perspectives.  They seem to be stick figures in a gigantic soap opera and they very quickly become tiresome.  One of the main characters is an English earl, Lord Fitzherbert, who is mired in his conservative view of the world.  His German counterpart is Otto von Ulrich who is even more of a conservative dinosaur in his views.  Lord Fitzherbert reminded me very much of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, except for the fact that the Earl of Grantham, while clinging to his old ways, really cares about other individuals and can sometimes be persuaded to alter his views.  In so doing, he becomes someone that is at least interesting.  Lord Fitzherbert in Fall of Giants has no such endearing qualities, however.  As I progressed through the book, I found that I was losing interest in the other characters as well because of the same reason.

Follett uses very short sentences in his books in order to make it fairly easy to read.  This helps to keep it going, but after a while it becomes a bit tedious as there is no variety.

The historical backdrop of the novel, the start of World War I and it’s subsequent impact on the characters, had a lot of potential but it somehow wasn’t connected as well as it could have been.  An example is the depiction of the war’s ending.  The scene was a battle at a bridge in France and the Germans’ defeat in that battle.  In the next few pages the Germans were suing for peace.  The reasons for the war ending were left very vague.

Also, Winston Churchill was depicted throughout the novel as a warmongering Conservative who was fighting the franchisement of women and all labor reforms.  No mention was given of Churchill sponsoring the bills to provide national health insurance and a minimum wage for the workers when he was a member of the Liberal Party.

Finally, Follett, in an attempt, I suppose, to pander to the reading public these days, includes many awkward sex scenes throughout the novel.  These scenes altogether seem to detract from the novel versus adding any real value.

The book was okay to read, but long, long, long.  I would suggest that Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance are some excellent examples of this type of novel where ordinary individuals are swept up by the events associated with war.  The unsurpassed novel in this genre, however, has to be Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.

Ken Follett has apparently stepped beyond his capabilities when he bit off this novel.  I would suggest that he return to writing suspense novels where his talents can readily be applied.

2 1/2 stars

Dreams of Joy: A Novel

by Lisa See, Audiobook, 2011, Read by Janet Song, Random House Audiobooks

This novel was fairly pleasant to listen to, but the plot and characters were pretty light weight.  The book is about a young girl of Chinese descent who, through being enthralled by the promise of Chinese communism and her own idealism, decides that she will run away from home and go back to China.  She ends up in a commune and reality is much harsher than her dreams.

The story slogs along and towards the end the part which should be the most exciting is given very little attention.  It’s over.

The reading was okay but not inspiring.  Other than that, I don’t have much to say about this run of the mill effort.

2 stars

Defending Jacob: a novel

by William Landay, 2012, Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, New York

This is a story about an Assistant DA who is caught up in a bad situation when his son is accused of a murder of a classmate.  Complicating the issue is a secret that he has kept from his family, that his father and grandfather were criminals who had a disposition for violent acts.

The book is pretty well written and depicts the stress that the situation places on the father and mother.  The author also creates a believable character in the son, who may be a typical teenager caught up in unfortunate circumstances; or, he might be something else altogether.

I had a bit of trouble with the father’s character, however.  He had investigated many murder cases prior to this one and he locked on to another suspect in this case without a lot of evidence.  He also totally discounted the possibility of his son’s involvement, even though there were some odd circumstances that would have at least caused him to have some questions.  I found his unwavering belief in his son to be a bit of a stretch.

I would have enjoyed the book a lot more without some of the repetitive passages, particularly when it came to descriptions of his wife and how she was coping with the ordeal.  This caused the book to get a bit bogged down.

Overall, it is a pretty good book, but it seemed that it could have been much better.

3 1/2 stars


The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Translated by Lucia Graves, 2004, The Penguin Press, New York

This is a well-crafted mystery about a boy who comes across a mysterious book in a “book cemetery.'”  The plot thickens from that point on as the boy progresses into manhood and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book and the subsequent events that occur as the result of its writing take control of his life.  The book is set in Barcelona, Spain, around the time of Spanish Civil War.

The plot is well constructed and the characters are interesting and believable.  The only thing I feel that keeps this book from becoming a masterpiece is that it tends to get bogged down a bit in its later parts.  I felt that I was experiencing some of the scenes multiple times and there were times that the story didn’t seem to move forward.

I also thought the author’s writing style was very good. Despite a few shortcomings I felt the book was interesting and enjoyable to read.3 1/2 stars


Birds Without Wings

by Louis de Bernières, 2004, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York

This book was recommended by Johanna Hanink, a classics professor at Brown. who accompanied us on our cruise, Pearls of Antiquity, to Greece and Turkey.  I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Greek and Roman settlements in the Greek Isles and Asia Minor prior to going on this trip.  Virtually all of our lectures focused on Greek mythology and art and most of our excursions were to ancient Greek and Roman ruins.  At the same time I could see that I was in two vastly different countries and I had very little understanding about either of them, particularly given the current turmoil that each of them is experiencing. This book helped me to gain a great deal of knowledge about them and insight into their more recent histories.

The book is primarily about the lives of some of the common people living near what is currently called Fethiye on the west cost of Turkey starting prior to World War I.  During that time ethnic Greeks and Turks (Christians and Muslims) lived pretty much side by side in the Ottoman Empire without a great deal of discord.  The book highlights the events that took place and how they affected both the Christians and the Muslims living in the small town.

The author’s prose is extremely readable and the story is compelling, although a bit brutal at times.  Despite this, I found the reading to be somewhat of a chore at times.  Perhaps this was due to the very small print which made the book seem to be much longer than its 554 pages.  The characters in the book, although fictional, seemed to capture the essence of the place.

The combined effect of our trip to Greece and Turkey and the reading of this book causes me to wonder about the impacts of civilization.  With so much philosophy, art, architecture, etc., generated in this region of the earth, why is it that the only way that a people can live in harmony is by getting rid of everyone who is different from them?  It seems that no amount of culture can deter the human race’s ability to inflict mayhem on other human beings.

Although I have arrived at a somewhat depressing conclusion, this is a very good novel and I recommend it to anyone who has the perseverance to read it through. 4.5 stars

The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay,1957, Paperback edition, 2012, Ferrar Strauss and Cudahay, New York

I read this book because it was on the reading list for our educational vacation to Greece and Turkey.

This book is about a trip to Turkey by a young English girl along with her aunt and an Anglican minister.  While in Turkey her aunt and the Anglican minister take off to Russia leaving the young girl on her own.  She travels around Turkey on a camel and undergoes a variety of experiences.

The young girl evidences an unusually innocent demeanor while possibly being a lot more street smart than she lets on.  She asks herself many questions about various matters which tend to take a lot of potshots at things that don’t seem to add up.  One of her targets in this process is the Anglican Church which seems to be embarking on a folly which is to establish itself as an alternative to Islam in Turkey.  He aunt, on the other hand, is upset about the treatment of women in Turkey, but doesn’t seem to be able to have any impact on correcting the situation.

Our heroine also manages to con an unscrupulous young author who has purloined another individual’s work as her own,.  She uses this as a means of getting him to provide her with free food and drink as well as money.

All of this suggests she isn’t quite as innocent as she puts on.

The book is humorous at times although the ending is somewhat dark.  Although the book becomes a bit tedious, it is mostly fun to read.3 1/2 stars


Private Svoboda, Hope is the Last to Die

by Steven R. Roberts with Alexander von Svoboda, 2013, Rouge River Press, Dearborn, MI

This story is about a youth who was drafted into Hitler’s army and survived incredible hardship.  At the age of 15 Alexander Svoboda was sent to the Russian front to defend the motherland from the oncoming Russian army.  His unit was severely outnumbered and, although many of his schoolmates in the same unit did not survive, Svoboda was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia.  He then escapes and makes his way back to his home in Austria (walking much of the way), only to find out that the Allies have cut a deal to turn over his part of Austria to Russian control at the end of the war.

I think the author really hit his stride in the telling of this story.  The story is told by Alexander in first person, present tense.  The story unfolds as if it is happening at this very minute rather than 70 years ago.  With each page there is something new and interesting happening and the story never drags.

Although I really liked the book, I do have a few comments that I thought could have made the book just a bit better.  In the first place, I didn’t like the font the book was printed with.  It was published using a sans-serif font which I believe is more suited to a poster or notice of some kind.  I am much more accustomed to reading a book using some kind of serif font such at Times-Roman.  After reading a while it didn’t seem to make much difference, but it took a little getting used to at first.

As I read the book, I got the feeling that the story was being told by a much older individual than a boy of fifteen or sixteen.  I am sure that the war would age someone quickly, both physically and mentally, but the story was related with far more wisdom, insight, and maturity than someone of that age could possibly possess.  It’s understandable that this would occur as the story was told to the author many years after it occurred, but it took away some of the immediacy of the book.

I noticed in a couple of places where there were some grammatical errors in the case of a pronoun (using the accusative “me” instead of the nominative “I” with an intransitive verb).  In English these errors are frequently heard and seen as we typically use different cases only with pronouns, but  it is unlikely that a schoolboy who is trained in much more structured German would be making the same kinds of grammatical mistakes that we typically do in English.  This is a pretty minor criticism, but as I was reading along, it was a bit jarring to see a typical English grammatical error uttered by a German schoolboy.

Lastly, there were a couple of places where the author switched from active to passive voice and back that seemed out of place.

These small items didn’t detract from the overall impact and impression of the book.  I liked it very much. 4 stars

The Language of Flowers

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, read by Tara Sands, 2011, Random House Audio

Not much to say about this book other than it was okay to listen to.  The plot was somewhat improbable and drawn out, the characters tolerable but not particularly interesting, and the theme of the book, flowers that have a language, was not credible.  I listened to this book on a trip from Naples to Narragansett over three days.  It got a bit tiresome, but I made it to the end.  I don’t think this book won’t find a place for itself in the annals of great world literature.2 stars

The Colossus of Maroussi

by Henry Miller, originally published in 1941, Second Edition, 2010, introduction by Will Short, afterword by Ian S. MacNiven, a New Directions Paperback

This book was on a book list for our upcoming cruise to Greece and Turkey.  It is a beautifully written travelogue written about a visit that Henry Miller made to Greece in 1939.  Miller describes, in spiritual terms, his encounters with a number of characters and locations throughout his travels.

While Miller goes a bit overboard in his rapture with certain individuals as well as his dislike for anything having to do with America, his prose captures the essence of his experiences.  After traveling recently to New Zealand and having friends ask me what it was like, I could only respond that “You have to go there to see for yourself”.  This response is due to my lack of ability to describe what I felt when I was there.  Miller, on the other hand, has the ability to capture not only what he saw and did, but also the deeply felt emotions he experienced while traveling.

Miller’s style encompasses extremely long sentences that incorporate stream of thought as well as short, staccato sentences reminiscent of Hemingway.  Both seem to precisely fit when he uses them.  The thoughts expressed in the longer sentences are easy to follow and Miller seems to finally plunk down the period in exactly the right spot.

Despite at times getting annoyed by Miller’s tirades about America and its faults, I really liked his vivid descriptions of Greece and his excellent writing. Note: Skip the introduction by Will Short. It struck me as being pompous and basically a bunch of garbage.3.5 stars

I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford

by Richard Snow, 2013, Scribner, New York

I thought the subject matter of this book was absolutely fascinating.   How Henry Ford invented the Model T and then made it available to the masses is a great story, no matter how many times it is told.  He then built a company that mass-produced the automobile in incredible quantities.

The book goes on to illustrate Ford’s eccentricities that almost led to the demise of the company.  It is unfortunate that a man of such genius had such horrible character flaws and quirks. I almost shuddered to think how he would have gotten along in the current “modern age.”

The book held my attention but seemed a bit choppy at times.  I somehow didn’t get the transitions from one subject or individual to another in the book.  I did feel that the book was worthwhile to read, however.3 1/2 stars