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

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 Swamp, The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

by Michael Grunwald, 2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks, New York

Prior to reading this book, I really didn’t understand the reasons why the Everglades are such a critical component of the South Florida ecosystem.  The bottom line is that, without the Everglades, it is doubtful that this area would be able to support the levels of human population that currently live here.

My wife and I took our kids into the park back in 1981, but we had absolutely no idea that the Everglades were so threatened at that time.  The author provides a great deal of history of the development of South Florida.  He then goes on to provide a more recent history and how the politics and interests of the developers have impacted the Everglades and the environment.

There are some projects currently underway to, hopefully, help restore the Everglades.  Long stretches of bridges are being built to raise portions of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami in order to restore the flow of the Everglades to the ocean.  There are also battles going on the control the release of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Chattahoochee River.  This book provides perspective as to the importance of these events.  However, because the book ends in 2006 and it is now 2014, there is quite a gap between what was going on then and now.  I will need to find some more recent material to bring me up to date on what has transpired since the book was written.4 stars

Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us

by Michael Moss, 2012, Random House, New York

Our men’s book club did this book and I was initially skeptical that I would get much out of it.  I was wrong.  The book provided me with a great deal of insight regarding the foods I eat and also gave me some incentive to avoid some of them.

I was amazed at how much the consumer can be manipulated by the ingredients of our modern-day processed foods as well as the marketing schemes used to promote them.  On the other hand, I was also somewhat heartened by the fact that consumer preferences for healthier foods are also forcing the food companies to change, albeit in extremely small steps.  One thing that I learned that was valuable to me was that the taste buds can be modified over time to prefer less salt (although the same can’t be said for sugar or fat).

While the author seems to wander a bit at times, he has done a great deal of research and investigation which shows up throughout the book.  His tone is very even and he avoids the kind of accusatory rhetoric that is emblematic of some other authors such as Michael Moore.4 stars

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

by William Manchester, 1984, Unabridged Audiobook version read by Frederick Davidson, 2012, Blackstone Audio

This is a very good book, enhanced greatly by the reading of Frederick Davidson.  There were times when I thought I was listening to Winston, himself, rather than Mr. Davidson.

In regard to the content of the book, I had read Citizens in London which disclosed a great deal of information about the various affairs of Churchill’s daughters and daughter-in-law.  This book went into quite a bit of detail regarding the indiscretions of Winston’s mother, Jenny, and his father, Randolph, as well as the morals of the upper class in England in those times.  Winston and his wife, Clementine, however, seem to have had a very stable, loving and faithful relationship.  This was very interesting, given the looseness of the prior and following generations.

I was very impressed with Clementine and the sage advice she provided Winston, who was somewhat of a hothead at time.  The letters she and Winston wrote to each other are almost of the same quality that John and Abigail Adams wrote.  She was quite a lady.

Finally, the book went to great lengths to dispel some of the blame that Churchill received for the Gallipoli disaster.  It seems apparent that much of the blame should be placed on Lloyd George and the cabinet’s dithering when a decision to attack Constantinople was needed.  Kitchener’s last minute intervention also had much to do with creating the fiasco.  If the English ships had sailed on to take Constantinople as originally planned, the entire campaign in Gallipoli could have been avoided and, perhaps, would have even shortened World War I.

My only criticism of the book may be the amount of detail that it contains.  I must admit I was lost sometimes when the author delved into the various players in the political scene.  Also, it seems he recited every single letter Churchill ever wrote to his mother, his governess, and later, his wife.  It seemed to be a bit of overkill after a while. 4 stars

In the Garden of Beasts, Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

by Erik Larson, 2011, Broadway Paperbacks, New York

This is a fascinating book, well-written and extremely well-researched.  I was amazed at how well the author could reconstruct events that occurred so many years ago.  I couldn’t help compare his work to The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan which I had recently read.  In that book the author apparently had the opportunity to interview many of the participants in that particular piece of history and did a poor job of bringing those insights to his book.  In the case of Larson’s book, he did not have an opportunity to interview many of the persons involved in his book because almost all of them are deceased.  Nevertheless, he did a much better job of relating the events that occurred.

Another aspect of the book that I appreciated was that the author didn’t attempt to over-embellish the narrative.  He just describes the events and lets the reader react.  All too many times an author seems to try to pound home his or her particular views (e.g., Stacy Schiff in Cleopatra and Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals.  I much prefer Larson’s style where he leaves it up to the reader to react and form opinions.

It is chilling to read about this period of time in history when almost an entire population of a so-called civilized county was highjacked by a ill-educated megalomaniac and his henchmen.  In current times where there are very real dangers in our own country that require extra vigilance (i.e., surveillance) by our government of individuals’ actions, it behooves us to ensure that adequate processes and protections are in place to ensure that a similar result never occurs.
four stars

Heart of Darkness,

by Joseph Conrad, originally published in 1903, 2005, Blackstone Audio, read by Frederick Davidson

This is an incredibly good book given that it doesn’t have much of a plot and it was written by a Polish person whose English was a third language for him.  The beauty of this book is definitely in the use of the English language.  His sentences are terse, the words are sparing, but each additional word he uses is perfect in its cont

As I mentioned, the plot isn’t great.  It’s about a sailor, Marlow, who is hired by a company to go into the Congo and find out what’s going on with its agent, Kurtz.  Marlow accepts the job, goes in and gets Kurtz, listens to him tell his life story on the way out before he dies, and then returns home.  That’s basically it.

The beauty in the story is that Marlow is spinning his yarn to his fellow shipmates as the ship sits on the Thames.  The storytelling is absolutely spellbinding.  The reader in this production. Frederick Davidson, also does an outstanding job of portraying the storyteller.  I felt as if I were sitting there myself listening to Marlow telling his tale and that he was looking right at me while he was talking.

I attended a book lecture this winter in Naples by Elaine Newton where she compared Anne Pachette’s book, State of Wonder to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, implying that some of the same themes were employed in both books.  That may be true, but what she missed, I’m afraid, is that Heart of Darkness is a true work of art;  State of Wonder is only a pale imitation. four stars

 

Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938

by R. A. Scotti, Back Bay Books, 2004

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.  I was expecting another fairly dry (no pun intended) description of the devastation wrought by this super storm.  Instead, I got a collection of well-written vignettes of what happened to certain individuals during the storm, along with some pretty well-researched description of the impact of the hurricane on a macro level.

The author, R. A. Scotti, is apparently also a mystery/suspense writer.  She utilizes these skills well in her telling of the stories in this book.  I am reminded of how well Ken Follett applies the skills he utilized in writing adventure stories to his more recent work (he managed to keep his readers’ interest while telling a story about building a cathedral, which should be a bit like reading about grass growing).  I think that many of the authors today who write popular fiction tend to be stuck in their groove and aren’t able to do anything different (e.g., James Patterson, et. al.).  I guess one reason is that once they start raking in the money doing what they are doing, there is little incentive to try anything new.

Anyway, I have digressed a bit.  As I have stated, I think that this book is extremely readable and interesting and my only criticism is that she may have devoted a bit too much discussion as to what happened to the school bus passengers on Jamestown Island.  Possibly, too much information here.  Other than that, I recommend this book, especially to anyone who has lived or spent any amount of time in the areas affected (which is just about all of the Northeast U.S.)four stars

Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie, 2011, Random House, New York

This book is extremely well-written and researched.  I felt that I really understood the woman and also gleaned a tremendous amount of Russian and European history from reading it.

While I was reading the book, I was thinking about how much better written it was than was Cleopatra, A Life, by Stacy Schiff which I read last year.  Mr. Massie’s sentences were well constructed using very simple structure while Ms. Schiff seemed to stick various phrases in odd places in her sentences.  In addition, Mr. Massie let the story tell itself while Ms. Schiff tried to interject her own odd sense of humor into the story at every opportunity she had.  The result is that reading Catherine made me dislike Cleopatra even more than I had previously.

The persons in the book were sometimes a bit difficult to track due to the complexity of the relationships, but the author manages to keep the reader on track and make it interesting.  The amount of detail about Catherine’s various affairs (there were twelve of them), also made it a bit overwhelming.  Nevertheless, the book is well worth the effort to read. four stars

River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

by Candice Millard, 2005, Anchor Books, New York

I was not aware that Theodore Roosevelt, after his defeat in the 1912 presidential election, had embarked on a dangerous journey of exploration in the Amazon.  Having braved some somewhat less dangerous canoe trips in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota in my younger days, I was amazed at the hardships that Roosevelt and his group encountered.  On the trips I went on, we had all the best equipment, packed professionally by outfitters who knew what they were doing (with the possible exception of one trip where the new owners of the outfitting company gave us sleeping bags that were much too light for the season).  It is clear from this book that the persons planning Roosevelt’s trip had no idea what they were doing.  Also, this particular route had never been explored before and the individuals who were in charge didn’t have a good idea of what they were going to encounter.  Furthering the difficulties was the fact that the command of the trip was split between two individuals who had widely differing views of what they wanted to accomplish.  It is a wonder that they survived.

Despite the differences of my relatively safe excursions into the wilderness and Roosevelt’s journey, I found I could identify with some of the stresses that being isolated in a remote area creates.  I found myself reading just to find out what kinds of dangers were lurking around the next bend of the river.

Despite some dry passages where the author is describing the various insects and flora of the jungle, the book is very readable and tells a compelling story.  It is well done. four stars