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Ethan Cooper (Big Apple)

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Fraser Macdonald G. : Flashman in the Great Game (Plume)
Fraser Macdonald G. : Flashman in the Great Game (Plume)
by George MacDonald Fraser
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First-Rate but Rowdy History, 1 Feb. 2009
In FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME, Flashman is in India in 1857, doing undercover work for Lord Palmerston, when the Indian Mutiny erupts. Consistent with his other Flashman novels, George McDonald Fraser shows an immense talent for comic plausibility in FitGG as he moves Flashman into the thick of the action. This time, Flash witnesses the outbreak of the rebellion at Meerut, survives the siege and massacre at Cawnpore, does his duty at the fortress at Jhansi, where the Brits have laid a siege, and watches horrified as the beautiful Rani Lakshmibai, who Flashy may have bedded, dies in battle at Gwalior.

As a Yank, the Indian Mutiny was mostly new to me, and I frequently found myself on Wikipedia, trying to learn more about the issues and events of this terrible war, where both sides behaved with great cruelty. In doing so, I gained further respect for Fraser, who communicates the information that's on Wikipedia but with flair, occasional humor, and admirable concision. In his hands, the Mutiny becomes a tale of great adventure, where Flashman becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character, who seems mean-spirited only among other Brits.

In the first 100 pages of FitGG, Fraser sets up his story and introduces his characters. Admittedly, these pages are a little slow. But, thereafter, hold onto your hat! This is an exciting and first-rate action narrative, with Flashy, really an ordinary man, illuminating history.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the tracks of 'The Great Railway Bazaar'
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the tracks of 'The Great Railway Bazaar'
by Paul Theroux
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye-Opening and Entertaining, 29 Jan. 2009
Paul Theroux's intention in GHOST TRAIN TO THE EASTERN STAR is to retrace the journey he took 33 years before and chronicled in THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR, his breakthrough travel book. While repetition of a journey that Paul (I feel like I know the guy) took as a marginal and penurious thirty-something does add insight, GHOST TRAIN really rises and falls on the mature Paul's curiosity, scrupulous observation, and preparation. Together, these achieve a three-dimensional view of every city he visits, where his travel experiences often fall into a pattern. First, Paul sketches the history or reputation of a city or recalls his own youthful travel impressions. Then, Paul explores in 2006, seeking both high and low experience. When he has finished, Theroux has usually revealed a city of unexpected tenor, as well as a rich and surprising range of local phenomena.

Certainly, an easy illustration of this technique is Paul's visit to Istanbul, which he establishes as a modern, secular, and diverse city of robust economic activity, not a Muslim threat to Europe. This is a welcome surprise, with Paul entering Istanbul after traveling through Bulgaria and Romania, two European countries mired in economic desolation and poverty undifferentiated from the Brezhnev era. Delighted with Istanbul's diversity and vitality, Paul pokes around, where he inadvertently upsets a Russian prostitute in a bar. (Paul, not the pimp, is the person lacking sensitivity). Then, Paul goes to a party and meets Orhan Pamuk, just before he wins his Nobel Prize. Pamuk seems, well, sort of a character and a little scattered socially. They talk about Borges.

Altogether, Paul travels in 18 countries in GHOST TRAIN, where he stops at roughly 40 destinations, all but a few (Angkor in Cambodia is an exception) modern cities. Throughout, his technique is to hop on the train, where he shares a compartment with other travelers. These can be anyone, but they sometimes clarify a cultural current, such as the Jain accountant who travels with Paul to Jaipur. Then Paul reaches his destination, gets off, and explores.

Theroux has sections of exceptional insight in GHOST TRAIN. These include his rant about Singapore (pages 319-332), his creepy premonitions about Tokyo (422-24), and his wonderful explanation for the renaissance of Viet Nam. Theroux is also a prodigious reader and his book contains references to authors (my count is 24) whose own books enrich his understanding of the cultures he visits while providing rewarding diversion on the trains. There's beauty too. Here's Paul entrained in Sri Lanka.

"... the [railroad] line rising from the coast, passing through the gardens and villages on the slopes, the rice terraces full of still, silvery water and mirroring the sky, the rock temples hacked out of cliffs, the monasteries at their higher elevations. Coconut plantations, vegetable farms, pineapple fields, markets overflowing with blossoms: the way to Kandy was strewn with flowers."

This is a wonderful book and highly recommended.

A Farewell To Arms (Vintage Classics)
A Farewell To Arms (Vintage Classics)
by Ernest Hemingway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional in its Depiction of Manly Rapport, 29 Jan. 2009
In A FAREWELL TO ARMS, the texture, pace, and content of the social interaction is absolutely spot-on when Lieutenant Frederic Henry, Hem's protagonist, mixes with his fellow officers, the soldiers in his command, various bartenders, and several nurses who mother him. While Frederic shows a slightly different face in each group, he is generally succinct, generous, self-aware, and subtle in his social mastery. IMHO, this Frederic is a genuine literary achievement and a reason, by himself, to read this terrific anti-war novel. At a minimum, AFtA certainly demonstrates that Hemingway has a fabulous gift for capturing manly rapport and virile presence.

At the same time, Hem doesn't seem to know how to handle Catherine Barkley, his only significant female character. In her presence, Hem seems out of his element, and the interaction between the sexes seems to contain only empty expressions. "You're awfully nice," is typical. Maybe Hem is saying that love is doomed during war and that lovers are reluctant to probe their commitment. Still, a couple together as much as Frederic and Catherine would enjoy some lighter or more natural moments, wouldn't they?

Nonetheless, the force driving this novel is The Great War, with the war-weary Frederic serving in the Italian army, suffering a serious wound, enjoying a discreetly sexy convalescence, returning to battle, and then making his separate (but tragic) peace. As told by Hemingway, this story abounds with male sports--mess hall razing, military duty, battle, and bold survival--that bring out the best in his terse style. When mortar shells explode in Frederic's shallow trench, for example, a writer who describes through sequences of quick impressions can be completely true to the moment.

AFtA achieves its status as a classic of American literature in Book III, when the Austrians and Germans break through the Italian lines and the Italian army undertakes a pathetic retreat, where the biggest threat is friendly fire. Then, the arbitrary dimension of war comes into perfect but non-polemical focus as Frederic, ready to regroup to make a stand, tries to cross the wooden bridge at the Tagliamento River. Highly recommended.

The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror
The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror
by Dexter Filkins
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly Layered Impressions of Afghanistan and Iraq, 5 Jan. 2009
The source of THE FOREVER WAR is 561 notebooks that Dexter Filkins filled in a nine year period, when he worked as a correspondent for The Los Angeles Times in Afghanistan and The New York Times in Iraq. In a section of acknowledgements at the end of his book, Filkins thanks Jonathan Segal, his editor at Knopf, who "helped shape my unwieldy ideas and an even more unwieldy manuscript..."

While Filkins is surely being generous, what he and Segal succeed in delivering is a highly layered rendering of Filkins's experiences that both clarifies and conveys the complexity of these failed states. Filkins and Segal, in other words, have managed this mother lode of on-the-scene impressions brilliantly. They have created a book that is highly perceptive, never strident or polemical, and absolutely riveting.

The layering of experience is everywhere in TFW. One quick illustration is Chapter Eight, which focuses on a maternity hospital in Diwaniya that Jerry Bremer visits. This begins with Bremer's advance man, who is a Republican political operative, not an Iraqi expert. Then Bremer exits his Chinook and gives a speech, like a politician campaigning, citing statistics showing that all 200 hospitals in Iraq are open, that the country's health care is improving, and so on. But what Filkins learns from the doctors is that there is no electricity. As a result, the hospital cannot sterilize instruments or warm the incubators and its premature babies are dying. In this and other visits to this hospital, Filkins also finds one employee who hates Saddam more than the American occupation but another who hates the chaos of the occupation more than Saddam. Altogether, this single short chapter shows the effort to manage the story, the reality, and the complex reactions and allegiances of the Iraqis. Throughout, TFW has a very rich narrative.

In TFW, Filkins does many things exceedingly well. But among my favorites is his discussion of the nihilism of the insurgents. In contemplating videos of suicide bombings, he writes:

"The videos made me wonder. What was more important to these guys, the suicide or the murder? You'd think it would be the murder, but I wasn't always so sure; there was a hint of nihilism in everything Al-Qaeda did. At the end of the Palestine-Sheraton video, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia at the time, gave a little speech. He promised victory for the Islamic world and, barring that, annihilation. `If the enemy wins,' Zarqawi promised, `we will burn everything.'" This nihilism is apparent in everything Filkins writes about Al-Qaeda.

Other excellent chapters examine ethic cleansing, IEDs, and the death of Lance Cor-poral William L. Miller. Highly recommended.

George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals
George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals
by Nelson W., Jr. Aldrich
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing Chatter about a Charming Man, 31 Dec. 2008
George Plimpton was the editor of the Paris Review, a droll and self-deprecating sports journalist, a toastmaster supreme, and a prominent but rebellious society figure. In all of these public roles, Plimpton evinced immense class and charm, which GEORGE, BEING GEORGE actually captures best by publishing a few of Plimpton's editorial memos, as well as remarks that he made at the 2001 alumni dinner for Exeter, his prep school. In these documents, Plimpton's amazing voice--graceful, intelligent, tasteful, and funny--is there, on the page. Surely, it is the sensibility animating this voice that made Plimpton a celebrity and a much beloved figure in literary New York.

Readers who want to experience this sensibility might purchase The Paris Review Anthology, which provides highlights from this literary magazine from 1953 to 1987. While Plimpton's written contributions to this anthology are limited to introductions, the authors he spotted and promoted are truly an A-list in American letters. In the section of this book headed 1981-1987, for example, the Paris Review published fiction from such authors as Bass, Boyle, Carver, Gass, McInerney, Minot, Rush, and Simpson. And, it published poems from Ashberry, Brodkey, Brodsky, Galassi, Heaney, and Hustvedt. To spot and/or promote these talents was clearly a great service to people who enjoy literature.

GEORGE, BEING GEORGE also establishes that the Paris Review, while a distinguished literary journal, was chronically short of money. But Plimpton kept the ship afloat through his charm, which helped him secure patrons, as well as generous cash infusions from his own bank account. Once again, thank you George.

At the same time, GEORGE, BEING GEORGE does look behind the Plimpton persona. In particular, it presents many comments from his two wives that show he was a sometimes difficult husband. Essentially, Plimpton lived large, making his living (and paying his heavy expenses) as a celebrity toastmaster. To play this part, Plimpton was always out and about, being George, what Philip Roth described in Exit Ghost (Vintage International) as an "urbane witty gentleman of easy intelligence and aristocratic bearing." This secured fame and a lush livelihood while keeping the Paris Review afloat. But apparently, George belonged to his public as much as to his wives. One contributor compares Plimpton, in the early years of his first marriage, to John Kennedy, who was not malicious but just did as he pleased. Both John and George were difficult mates.

GEORGE, BEING GEORGE is composed of comments from 200 of Plimpton's associates, friends, and family members. Often, these comments focus on George, the celebrity, which was not especially interesting to me. Further, this technique squeezes out Plimpton's literary achievements. Although it does convey the premise and project flow of his self-deprecatory sports journalism, this technique excludes excerpts from his work. Surely, some excerpts would have added meat to this book, which does veer towards chatter.

Nonetheless, GEORGE, BEING GEORGE absolutely zooms along and can be read as a history of a 50-year literary era, with its subject the career and persona of one of that era's most prominent editors. Highly recommended.

The Code Of The Woosters (Everyman's Library P G WODEHOUSE)
The Code Of The Woosters (Everyman's Library P G WODEHOUSE)
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.68

0 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Articulate Fluff, 23 Dec. 2008
THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS defied my usual reading style. That style is interactive and generates marginalia, which absolutely fills the white space of books I enjoy. But my copy of TCofW is nearly pristine, with the reading experience provoking few comments. Not to sound pompous; but for me, this novel was dull fluff, albeit a masterful demonstration of voice. Still, I recognize my limits. If I were a Brit or more aware of the conventions of 1930's British social satire, then maybe...

TCofW gains life after Wodehouse establishes the character Sir Watkyn Bassett, who is the antagonist of Bertie Wooster, as Bertie is charged with snatching a silver cow creamer and battles, in his twitish way, to foster the nuptials of Stiffy and Madeline. Sir B is a magistrate, host, and wealthy man who Wodehouse eventually endows with gravitas. Once this exists, Bertie's shenanigans become funny, especially in Chapter Nine, when he asks Sir B for permission to marry Stiffy. Without Sir B's grounding, the novel is merely highly-mannered farce and not especially amusing.

A good way to read TCofW is to tic the margins whenever Wodehouse uses an archaic or obscure word or expression. "How my Aunt Agatha's McIntosh niffed to heaven..." "She biffed off and I leaned..." "That's where you're making your bloomer." "... a bucket of cold water right into the mazzard." "Snootered to the bursting point..." "...and come a purler in the bathtub." In his use such use of language, Wodehouse shows he is an exacting and playful writer.

The Little Sister
The Little Sister
by Raymond Chandler
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 28 Nov. 2008
THE LITTLE SISTER is terrific mystery that concludes with a gruesome incident of sudden (albeit implausible) poetic justice. By my count, TLS has five murders and a suicide, with Philip Marlowe a step too slow to prevent any crime but way ahead of the cops (and this reader) as he identifies the perps and unravels their interlaced motives.

There are lots of standard Raymond Chandler elements in TLS, including gangsters, devious deadly dames, and a film-noir Los Angeles. But in contrast to other Chandler novels I've read, there seems to be even less effort to elucidate the sour integrity of the lonely Marlowe. Since this is the fifth novel in the series, Chandler probably felt such explication would add little to, and might actually detract from, his spare and disciplined style. On the other hand, Chandler tells us more about the movie business in TLS and his dialogue is never better. Among my marginalia is: "Conversation as combat."

In TLS, it's the cops that bring out the best in Ray. When they're on the page, Chandler's wonderful metaphors seem sharpest, his skillful screen writer's dialogue carries the most freight, and his rhetoric absolutely soars. Here's Chandler letting loose, as Lieutenant Christy French berates Marlowe:

"It's like this with us, baby. We're coppers and everybody hates our guts. And as if we didn't have enough trouble, we have to have you. As if we didn't get pushed around enough by the guys in the corner offices, the City Hall gang, the day chief, the night chief, the Chamber of Commerce, His Honor the Mayor. ...We spend our lives turning over dirty underwear and sniffing rotten teeth. We go up dark stairways to get a gun punk with a skinful of hop and sometimes we don't get all the way up, and our wives wait dinner that night and all the other nights. We don't come home anymore. And nights we do come home, we come home so [expletive] tired, we can't eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we lie awake at night in a cheap house on a cheap street..."

Highly recommended.
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by Philip Roth
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Must-Read from Roth, 1 Nov. 2008
This review is from: Indignation (Hardcover)
INDIGNATION is a fascinating novel, albeit difficult to read except in 20 page bursts. The reason is that the intense Marcus Messner, Roth's young protagonist and narrator, finds little joy, but much angst and guilt, in his life. He is the master of nothing. Everything is a challenge. His world is an ordeal. At one moment, Marcus is surprised to be told by his college Dean that he is shouting and pointing angrily. But throughout, Marcus seems on the verge such hysterical expression. This makes INDIGNATION a book to enjoy in small doses.

INDIGNATION is the story of Marcus, a studious young man and only child, who flees his overbearing father in Newark for a year at Winesburg College in rural Ohio. But when Marcus takes a step forward in his life--such as excelling in school, establishing greater independence from his parents, having new sexual experiences, and befriending the leaders in a fraternity--Roth connects that step to perilous undercurrents of guilt, principled naïveté, or treachery. In INDIGNATION, all the happy normal experiences of youth and college don't make Marcus stronger. Instead, they make him increasingly vulnerable.

The narrative skill shown in INDIGNATION is truly dazzling. Not only is there not a single word out of place. But Roth is also able to pull a surprising and profound subtext from each experience that Marcus relates. The effect is that you get every event in the novel twice: once in the seamless and interesting telling; then a second time in its surprising interpretation. Only in the very end of INDIGNATION does the meaning that Roth pulls from an experience seem obvious. (I thought we were going to learn that Marcus was doomed to recapitulate the tragic meshuge of his father's family.)

Of course, it's all a matter of taste. But I must say that Roth sometimes seems to overplay to make his points. Anyone remember the vomit scene in American Pastoral, which expressed revulsion? Well, INDIGNATION has a vomit scene as well. For an author who is able to find great depth in the most ordinary interactions, I wonder why these extreme physical expressions need to occur.

by Joseph Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Characters Living with Death, 22 Oct. 2008
This review is from: Catch-22 (Paperback)
The amazing CATCH-22 essentially has three overlapping narratives. One shows senior officers who are comically unsympathetic to the interests of their men. Some of these, such as Colonel Cathcart and General Peckem, are careerists who make decisions according to self-interest (or stupidity and self-interest). Others are incompetents, such as Major Major Major Major and General Sheiskopff, whose authority far surpasses their ability. To me, the careerist officers, while satirical, seemed as real as any modern bungling boss, working smugly in the corner office.

Milo Minderbinder, a genius trader and capitalist, is the dominant character in the second narrative. Technically, Milo is the mess officer at Pianosa, where Yossarian is based. But he has parlayed this job into a food supply syndicate and has become a major commercial player throughout the entire war zone. Milo is a profiteer and entrepreneur whose greed distorts, and sometimes overshadows, the war.

With Milo, Heller shows a world of surrealistic capitalism that thrives as the men in the bombers die. But for me, Milo didn't add much. His adventures make twisted sense. Yet they hit only one note and don't really ripen into something more profound. Milo is the least successful part of this superior and complex book.

The third narrative in CATCH-22 shows the men who fly in the bombers. Here, Heller's work is outstanding. There are men who can't shake the presence of death (Yossarian, Dunbar, Hungry Joe, and Dobbs). There are true believers who accept the mission and its risks (Clevinger and Havermeyer). There is a rich kid (Nately), a reckless hotdog (McWatt), and a doomed alcoholic (Chief White Halfoat). And there are the horrible fatalities (Snowden and Kid Sampson), whose deaths are gruesome and arbitrary.

Heller's work with these characters is absolutely first-rate. While they have cartoonish aspects, each is distinct and each has a surprisingly moving story. Heller also writes about their combat missions with you-are-there intensity. Finally, he connects the reader emotionally to the plight of these characters, especially in the final 150 pages, when the power and poignance of his narratives merge and really hit home. Then, you feel the consequences when you learn that, say, Milo has substituted aspirin for morphine in McWatt's plane on the tragic and high-risk mission to Avignon. "There there," murmurs Yossarian. "There there."

CATCH-22 is a long book. There is repetitiveness in its humor. Its iteration of events is occasionally maddening. But keep at it! CATCH 22 deserves its must-read reputation (although seventh place on the ML Best Novels list seems a bit high). Regardless, this is a terrific novel.

A Most Wanted Man
A Most Wanted Man
by John Le Carré
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, 16 Oct. 2008
This review is from: A Most Wanted Man (Hardcover)
A MOST WANTED MAN shares many qualities with other le Carre novels. These include a brisk and involving narrative, sly humor, and a plot shaded with lots of bureaucratic menace and heavy handedness. Furthermore, it features characters who, yet again, push back against the intelligence community. This time, they are Annanbel, an idealistic young lawyer, and Gunther, a wily mid-level intelligence veteran. Within character, each is trying to make the intelligence systems of Germany, England, and America act honorably and effectively as they address the situation of Issa, a hapless and stateless Chechen who big shots view as a terrorist. As is common in so many le Carre novels, Annabel and Gunther also operate on a level where they can't counter the actions of the big players, who achieve a ruthless and surprising denouement.

AMWM is more high-caliber work from le Carre. Still, I deduct one star for the clouds of infatuation enveloping Annabel and the banker Tommy Brue. These seemed unnecessary and didn't ring true. Otherwise, AMWM is a very fast and entertaining read.

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