Thursday, September 3, 2015

Summer reading

Summer has provided some good time for reading but not much for blogging. The best book I read this summer was Lily King's Euphoria, a fictionalized version of the love triangle experienced by Margaret Mead and her first and second husbands as they were all researchers in New Guinea. It was a beautifully written, sparingly told love story set in conditions beyond exotic. It was helpful that the author did not attempt to use the actual historical characters -- it gave her more freedom, as I noted in my WIRoB blog post.

Nell's husband became increasingly unsympathetic in the course of the novel, and in fact the reader wonders what the attraction was in the first place. But it realistically portrays how the charm of a particular moment or period can set our lives in a certain direction that then becomes hard to change.

Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin was one of his best thriller to date. He captures the ambivalence of a period that drew creative personalities like Berthold Brecht to the young German Democratic Republic even in the face of the appalling reality of Stalinism. Layered on top of this background is the personal story of Alex Meier, a refugee caught in his own vise of compromise compelling him to return as a spy for the CIA. If the East German Stasi is ugly, so is the American agency. Meier's rekindled romance with an actress there and its role in completing his mission rounds out a compelling read replete with tellingly accurate details.

Ben Winters' World of Trouble completes the Last Policeman trilogy. Predictably, this third book loses a little of the momentum and freshness that propelled the other two. The previous novel, Countdown City, had set up this quest for Henry to go look for his sister Nikki, one of the least interesting characters in series. She is so unsympathetic that it's hard to share Henry's concern for her welfare. Also, the plot is more plodding, with none of the clever twists and turns that characterized the previous two novels.

Far North by Marcel Theroux is another good post-apocalyptic novel, similar in many respects -- too similar sometimes -- to the Chang Rae Lee book. It too involves a picaresque journey of a young survivor with many twists, evil characters and a firm belief in the resiliency of the human spirit.

The Empty Quarter by David Robbins is another in the series involving the intrepid pararescue troopers, this time on a mission to Saudi Arabia's empty quarter that is off the grid in more senses than one. Not as good as the earlier one, but still easy to read.

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow traced a macabre experiment in 1871 New York that you realize only slowly is a chilling critique of modern medicine. It has the period detail and deft characterization that mark Doctorow's better known works, while the baroque pace is somewhat more streamlined.

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