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Millennium People
Millennium People
by J. G. Ballard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Losers of worlds at heaven's bidding, 4 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Millennium People (Paperback)
Watching the Devil kick the Millennium
Over the Golden Mountain." Edgar Lee Masters

"Millennium People" has an interesting story line. Set in the UK shortly after the Millennium, psychologist David Markham is mourning the murder of his ex-wife. She was the victim of a terrorist bombing at Heathrow Airport. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter he begins his own personal investigation. He quickly finds himself thrown into a strange world: a world filled not with foreign interlopers from abroad or proletarian rebels but, rather, one filled with disaffected tea-sipping, Volvo-driving, over-extended mortgage holding members of the British middle classes. For reasons explained in the book they are just fed up, prisoners of their own success apparently. And, contrary to what one would expect of a stereotypical British member of the bourgeoisie, they seem easily led to increasingly violent acts. Finally, Markham meets the `hidden hand' behind the angst and from there the story comes to a rather dramatic conclusion.

By the time I was one-third of the way through J.G. Ballard's "Millennium People" I was reminded of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 movie If... (The Criterion Collection) in which a young Malcolm MacDowell play a privileged teen who, chafing at the oppression of an old, elite English boarding school, leads a group of children of the middle and upper classes on a violent revolt. Millennium People struck me a story of what those teens might get up to if they had decided to rebel against their stolid, middle class, middle-age surroundings. I soon became convinced that the book reminded me of Paddy Chayefsky's Network, where people, once again mostly middle class start chanting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." By the time I was finished, when the Millennium People took its last twist and turn, or descent if you will into a study of madness, I was sure that it shared some literary DNA with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

These shifting comparisons represent for me both the enjoyment and disappointment I had with Millennium People. Weaving three themes through a book is not all that unusual and when it works it can be brilliant. But, when they don't connect, when the individual themes don't seem well-integrated than I think that leaves room for a bit of disappointment. That was the difficulty I had with Millennium People. At the end of the day I think of a book in which the individual parts were greater than the whole. While the book was a pleasure to read, as Ballard's books typically are, I felt a bit unsatisfied. Now this dissatisfaction is not the sort I feel when I read a `bad' book. Rather, it is the slight disappointment I feel when I read a book that is filled with terrific passages, with good writing and thoughtful insights into the human condition but which does not quite live up to the expectations that those passages and insights provide.

As noted, I admire Ballard's work. Although perhaps best known for Crash and Empire of the Sun I think his best work can be found in his short stories. His The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard show Ballard at his finest. I think coming to Millennium People after his short stories may be responsible for my slight disappointment. His short stories are masterful, compact, and powerful. All in all, I would recommend Millennium People to any reader. Despite my disappointment I was far from sorry that I read the book. It kept me engaged throughout. It just didn't quite live up to the promise of its individual themes.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 20, 2012 10:25 PM BST


The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Roth's 1940's America: A Short Step from Fascism and Despair, 4 Dec. 2011
It is an oft-stated cliché that many families are but one or two paychecks away from poverty. Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" suggests that perhaps U.S. society was, in 1940, one election surprise away from fascism. The Plot Against America also suggests that many families are but one step away from falling into dysfunctionality and despair. Although such a topic is susceptible of trite, formulaic prose, in the hands of Philip Roth it works remarkably well.

The story line is rather simple. Taking on the genre of alternate history (with which he shares with no small amount of irony at least some creative DNA with Newt Gingrich), Roth imagines a United States in which Charles Lindbergh storms the deadlocked 1940 Republican Convention, upsets Wendell Wilkie for the nomination, then barnstorms the nation in a novel election campaign that ousts FDR from the White House. Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War serves as the victorious campaign slogan. Slowly, but inexorably, U.S. isolationist policy grows stronger after it signs a non aggression pact with Germany and Japan. Britain grows weaker, and Lindbergh's cabinet and the Republican congress enact a series of laws that cause no small bit of consternation in America's Jewish community.

So far, there is nothing about the story line that is at all unusual in the alternate history genre. However, Roth writes his story through the eyes of one Phil Roth, youngest child of the Roth family of the Wequahic section of Newark. This alone sets The Plot apart from what is typically found in this genre. Roth's examination of the lives of big events through the eyes of a `little' man creates a subcontext that is rife with meaning for anyone who has experienced the joys and despairs of a family in crisis.

The Roth family, generally enjoying the rising working class/middle class fruits of life in mid-20th century America suddenly sees its internal world ripped asunder by these big events. The Roth family is, as is most of their Jewish neighbors, horrified at Lindbergh's election and justifiably fearful of what lies ahead. Unfortunately, their fears are well founded. Roth's Plot is as much, if not more, the story of the reaction of one family to this alternate history as the story of a nation at war with itself.

If Roth can be faulted for painting his alternate history with a broad and perhaps overly simpistic brush he cannot be faulted for the depth and insight into the life of a family tempest-tossed by a society gone mad. It is nuanced and meaningful. Roth's writing can be, and often is, stunning. As has always been his habit when he is on form, Roth is capable of crafting beautiful sentences and paragraphs. By looking at world-shattering events through the prism of a young man's eyes those events take on additional meaning because they can be understood on a familial rather than on a societal level.

Roth does have some fun with the historical figures that appear throughout the book. Walter Winchell, once the country's most famous radio reporters (and also the voice over narrator of the old Untouchables television series) leads the post-election campaign against Lindbergh and his cronies, most notably the viciously anti-Semitic Henry Ford. FDR and Fiorello LaGuardia also play important roles in Roth's alternate universe.

There are, no doubt, many readers that will resent what seems to be an attack on a person with the heroic stature of Lindbergh. That may be so, yet Roth does not go over the top in my opinion and by book's end does evoke more than a bit of sympathy for Lucky Lindy. Similarly, many have asserted that Roth's approach to the 1940 election, and the quasi-fascist oppression that followed, contains a rather blunt allegory to the 2004 election campaign. To that extent, no one should doubt Roth's probably political point of view. Again, that may be so. However, as if clear from the book's ultimate resolution (which should be left undisclosed in a review) that this society can sustain and repel challenges to the type of authoritarian regime imposed in Roth's alternate history is a far more optimistic world view than some of Roth's critics may credit him with.

Possible allegories aside, this is one of Roth's best efforts in recent years and I think that there is much to be gained by reading the book, no matter where ones current political sensibilities find their home. His prose is more concise than it has been for some time. For the first time in a long time, Roth seems more interested in telling a story in comprehensible declarative sentences than in creating sentences that do little more than establish his credentials as a `serious' writer. The Plot Against America can be enjoyed on any number of levels. It is not simply a parable of contemporary society and can be enjoyed simply for the quality of the writing.


The Yiddish Policemen's Union
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "[W]hen I have formed the sounds, 4 Dec. 2011
said the words out loud those who had assumed Yiddish was a language of the past only, suddenly felt it had been revived. . . . It seemed to be saying `khbin nisht vos ikh bin amol geven. I am not what I once was. Ober `khbin nisht geshtorbn. Ikh leb. But I did not die. I live." Irena Klepfisz.

Yiddish is certainly not dead in Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union". In fact, the primary language of Jews throughout the "Pale of Settlement" (where Jews were allowed to live in Imperial Russia) suffuses this book with the rich aroma of a language whose every word can take on a paragraph or even chapter of meaning in the hands of the right speaker. Chabon is one such speaker (or writer) and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a book that is rich in enjoyment.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is an artful blend of genres, a blend of crime fiction and alternate history. I think of it as a blend of Dashiell Hammett's dark crime stories like "Red Harvest" and Philip Roth's alternate-history novel "The Plot Against America".

Chabon has created a world in which there is no Israel. Rather, Israel had been crushed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Since that time the United States, partly as a result of guilt over the Holocaust has created a temporary homeland for displaced European Jews in and around Sitka, Alaska. Yiddish, not Hebrew, is the primary language. As the book opens, close to 60-years after the end of Israel, Sitka is due to revert back to U.S. control and the million or so inhabitants face the prospect of being stateless refugees. The hero, or protagonist, is Detective Meyer Landsman. Like one of Dashiell Hammett's characters he is a flawed, down-on-his luck cop with nothing much going for him except a strong sense of right and wrong and a personal integrity of the highest order. He is a drunk, he is divorced (and his ex-wife is his commanding office) and he lives in a flea-bag hotel. He is awakened out of something of a stupor and told a murder has been committed in the hotel.

It does not quite do Chabon's book justice to say that the story line is primarily that of Landsman's investigation into the murder of this stranger in his fleabag hotel. That is certainly how the book plays out. However, that is simply the structure of the book. As in Hammett, there is a murder in a town filled with greed and corruption and the path Landsman must walk is filled with hurdles and hidden minefields. As in Roth, the story of Landsman (which in itself is a Yiddish word that may be roughly translated as fellow countryman) is the story of a people set adrift and apart. It is a story of a people bobbing in a sea without an anchor, without a homeland. It is poignant but, ironically, it is poignancy without the schmaltz.

Chabon's writing, like Yiddish itself, is rich and thick with meaning. But more importantly, it is both funny and thoughtful. The barbs and insults and sarcasm with which the characters express their fondness for each other and their scorn and loathing is, in my opinion, dead-solid perfect. As I read "Yiddish Policemen's Union" I could envision the body language and sense the arched eyebrows or sneers on the lips of the characters as words come tumbling out of their mouths in a torrent.

Although I won't say anything to reveal the plot, I think Chabon shows excellent pace and timing in developing the plot. He neither rushes to expose too many details too soon nor leaves everything to a summary revelation at the book's climax. Chabon keeps the pot boiling and that kept me turning page after page after page long after I should have turned out the lights for the night.

One slight cautionary note: I grew up in a Queens, New York neighborhood at a time when Yiddish words and expressions were sprinkled liberally throughout every conversation both in my family's apartment and throughout my neighborhood. However, if you don't have any prior experience with Yiddish I suggest going on line and keeping a Yiddish-English web page handy if you find you have any difficulty with the odd word or phrase. Ultimately the pleasures of this book so far outweigh the minimal burden of pondering the occasional strange word. I mention it just so the potential reader is aware in advance that they might see a few words that may not be readily understood by every reader.

I got a great deal of pleasure from reading Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" and recommend it heartily.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 18, 2013 9:11 AM GMT


Citizens Of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour
Citizens Of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour
by Lynne Olson
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars "These are the times that try men's souls.", 4 Dec. 2011
It is with no small amount of irony that the words Thomas Paine used to rail against a Britain who had an "army to enforce her tyranny" so aptly describes the aura captured in Lynne Olson's "Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest, Hour." But it is must be no coincidence to Ms. Olson that those few U.S. citizens who did stand with Britain during the dark days of the fall of France, the 57 consecutive nights of the bombing of London (and cities throughout the UK) from September 7, 1940 through May 10, 1941, and the evisceration of British merchant shipping by U-Boats in the North Atlantic richly deserve Paine's view that those "that stand by it now, deserve[s] the love and thanks of man and woman."

In Troublesome Young Men: the Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power in 1940 and Helped to Save Britain, Olson told the story of the small group of Conservative MPs who opposed Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement toward Hitler's Germany from the mid-1930s until Churchill's accession to power. Olson's focus on a small group of relative unknowns (at least as far as an American audience is concerned) provided a valuable perspective of the era of appeasement and the premiership of Neville Chamberlain. Similarly, in "Citizens of London", Olson focuses on a small group of U.S. citizens resident in the U.K. who saw earlier than their compatriots that Britain's battle would soon be their own and who found it within themselves to do everything possible to aid a nation on the brink of starvation and despair. In so doing she provides valuable perspective on U.S.-British relations which are often cast(like the policy of appeasement) in the most superficial way.

The three `Yank' citizens were Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow, and John Gilbert Winant. Of the three, Harriman and Murrow's stories were known to me. Harriman, a child of wealth and privilege, was by all-accounts up to his time in the U.K. something of a cavalier playboy. He wasn't known for his substance at all but did manage to secure the position as the director of the U.S. lend-lease program in England. Murrow rose from relatively lowly beginnings to become the man whose radio broadcasts during the Blitz helped transform U.S. popular opinion from its isolationist base and in so doing created a remarkable news organization. Gilbert's story was unknown to me. A prep-school and Princeton graduate Gilbert succeeded Joe Kennedy as U.S. ambassador to England. Taken together the lives of these three men and the story of how their time in London resulted in the substantial transformation of their lives as well as the lives of the peoples they shared a war with constitute a pretty remarkable story.

Olson's book works admirably well. Although impeccably researched it remains an easily-read and digested work of history. I think the strongest aspect of the book is the fact that despite its rather heroic title this is no hagiographic treatment of three men on a white horse coming to rescues a helpless nation. Similarly, Olson's treatment of the overriding relationship between the U.S. and Britain is not cast in the light of the firm and eternal `special relationship' in which there was no tension or conflict. The relationship was no easy thing and Olson discusses the flaws and troubles that flowed from that relationship with a critical, even-handed eye.

On the (slightly) negative side I think there is some small loss of focus in the latter third of the book. The story of three men `standing with Britain' gets a bit swallowed up once the U.S. enters the war and millions of men and tons of materiel begin to flood Britain. Needless to say I think that diffusion reflects accurately what happened but the respect and admiration that these men obtained (particularly Winant) did endure. Despite that the book holds up throughout and by the time I was finished I felt I had gained a fuller understanding of the times that tried Britain's soul.

If I had to pick one aspect of the book that will stay with me the longest though it will not be that of the big picture painted by Olson. Rather, it will be of the portrait of the one man, John Gilbert Winant, whose story was totally unknown to me. His story astonished me and moved me as his life played out in the book and I was saddened by the fact that his story seems to have faded from our collective consciousness. For that alone (although there are other reasons to be sure) I hope this book is read and enjoyed by a broad audience.


A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Pleasure is spread through the earth, 4 Dec. 2011
In stray gifts to be claimed by whoever shall find."

The opening line of William Wordsworth's "Stray Pleasures" captures accurately Patrick Leigh Fermor's "A Time of Gifts". Fermor's story of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople is filled with tales of the stray gifts he found along the way. Fermor's story, one that was an absolute treat to come upon and read, was a gift to this reader.

Fermor was a child of what could be called the British colonial diaspora. Born in London in 1915, Fermor's mother left Patrick in England while she went to join her husband, a geologist, in India. Patrick was left to board with another family and, when old enough, was packed off to a series of boarding schools. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fermor's childhood was marked by a series of schoolboy rebellions and just shy of his 18th birthday found himself expelled from his school. With nothing much to do he decided to take a ferry from England to the Hook of Holland and from there to proceed on foot across Europe until he reached Constantinople. He left England in December 1933.

"A Time of Gifts" covers Fermor's travels from England to the Danube River. Partly a recreation from the journals he kept during his walk (his earlier journals were lost early on in his trip) and from memory when he set down to write of his travels in the 1970s, "A Time of Gifts" is a remarkable piece of writing. As the reader walks along with Fermor he/she is treated not just to description of Europe as seen from ground-level but of a Europe and its people that would soon be transfigured in another world war. This is a study in time and of place and is captured in prose that captured me from the start.

It is hard in a brief review to capture the flavor of Fermor's writings but I am hopeful one example will entice the prospective readers. After finding an Inn in a town busy celebrating Hitler's ascension to the Chancellery of the Germany, Fermor is touched and transformed by the folk music he heard sung in that tavern:

"Later on the volume dwindled and the thumping died away as the singing became softer and harmonies and descants began to weave more complex patterns. Germany has a rich anthology of regional songs, and these, I think were dreamy celebrations of the forests and plains of Westphalia, long sighs of homesickness musically transposed. It was charming. And the charm made it impossible, at the moment, to connect the singers with organized bullying and the smashing of Jewish shop windows and nocturnal bonfires of books."

Fermor's journey is filled with interesting detours and diversions and those just added to the pleasure. He seemed to have a gift for languages (as his later career as an undercover operative during WWII evidences), a gift for people as he managed to always find some way to befriend and be befriended by people he met along the way, and a gift for telling a story. "A Time of Gifts" is an apt title indeed.


Act of Passion (New York Review Books Classics)
Act of Passion (New York Review Books Classics)
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "His passion is so ripe, it needs must break, 12 Nov. 2011
And when it breaks, I fear will issue thence
The foul corruption of a sweet child's death." Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King John

Georges Simenon was nothing if not prolific in both his literary and public life. Born in Belgium in 1903, Simenon turned out hundreds of novels. Simenon's obsession with writing caused him to break off an affair (he was prolific in this area of his life as well) with the celebrated Josephine Baker in Paris when he could only write twelve novels in the twelve month period in which they were involved. Although perhaps best known for his Inspector Maigret detective novels, Simenon also wrote over a hundred novels that he referred to as `romans durs' (literally "hard novels"). These hard stories typically involve a person's descent from normality (or a life that seems to bear the appearance of normality) into nihilism and despair. Usually there is a triggering event, a murder, a bankruptcy, or simply too much to drink on a road trip. The publishing arm of `"The New York Review" NYRB Books is reissuing Simenon's hard novels. "Act of Passion" is their latest release. NYRB chooses its Simenons wisely. "Act of Passion" was one of those books you can't put down, an, when you finish you sit back for a while and wonder just what hit you.

Unlike the other Simenon "romans durs" I have read, this is narrated in the first-person. As the story opens Charles Alavoine has been tried and convicted of murder and is sitting in a French prison. The book's narrative is in the form of a lengthy letter written by Alavoine to the examining Magistrate who conducted the pre-trial investigation. It is the story of a life and a lengthy justification of the choices that eventually led to murder. It is clear from the start that the letter will convince no one, not the magistrate nor the reader. However, as set out by Simenon it provides a compelling narrative of a life-gone wrong from the point of view of the wrong-doer.

As in Simenon's other stories, Alavoine is stolid. He is a member of the middle class. A doctor, he has done everything `the right way', or the way one would expect of someone of his station. He got his medical degree, set up a small practice and got married. When his wife dies in childbirth he marries again. The new wife, Alavoine, the children and Alavoine's mother set up a household. Everything seems `normal', a man and a family going through a life without undue fear of hardship. Learning to play bridge seems to be the most daunting task facing Alavoine. But then, totally by chance Alavoine meets a young woman and his life is turned upside down.

There is no mystery in Act of Passion. The reader is presented with the `result' and the rest of the book provides a look inside the life of a man whose fall has already been completed. The heart of the book for me was that examination. Looking out through Alavoine's eyes as he tells his story one can sense the ennui, the boredom, and the sense that Alavoine must have felt, if unconsciously, that this life was one of oppression in a velvet, middle-class environment. Act of Passion is a powerfully told "guilty-but-with-an-explanation" letter. Although unconvincing, it is certainly compelling.

The Introduction to Act of Passion was written by film critic Roger Ebert and in it Ebert states that he has probably read more works by Simenon than any other 20th-century writer. If you haven't read Simenon's `romans durs' you might brush that off as the sort of hype that is to be expect in an Introduction. But, I think after reading this book and a sample of his other work, The Widow (New York Review Books Classics) and Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics) are just two, you will realize, as do I, that Ebert's praise is more than justified. L. Fleisig


The Pyramid
The Pyramid
by Ismail Kadare
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Pyramids still loom before me-something vast, 11 Nov. 2011
This review is from: The Pyramid (Paperback)
indefinite, incomprehensible, and awful." Herman Melville

In 1988 the Enver Hoxha Museum was opened to the public in Tirana, Albania. The Museum, which was designed by Hoxha's architect daughter Pranvera, was built as a lasting monument to the dictatorship of her father. The Museum, now known as the Albanian International Cultural Centre, is popularly known as "the Pyramid" because of its intentional structural resemblance to the great Pyramids of Egypt. Albania's "Pyramid" at one time contained pretty much everything Hoxha had ever touched or used during his career. A its center sat an imposing marble statue of Hoxha.

The Hoxha regime was marked by the brutal suppression of dissent through fear, torture, and purges created in response to patently absurd conspiracies against the state. This type of intimidation was patterned on the conduct of Hoxha's idol, Josef Stalin. The regime was also marked by a social and political isolation rivaled in the 2oth century only by that of North Korea. It was, at its worst, an isolated nation governed by intimidation and the fear that someone may denounce you for even the simplest transgression.

In 1988 the Albanian writer and poet began drafting his novel "The Pyramid". Set in ancient Egypt the novel tracks the construction of the great pyramid that would serve as the tomb of Egypt's ruler, Cheops. Although the young Cheops is reluctant to build the Pyramid he is convinced by his Viziers that the Pyramid is not useful simply as a tomb to prepare Cheops for the next life but as a means to control the lives of the people living under the Pharaoh's rule. Although the parallels between to story line of "The Pyramid" and life under the Hoxha regime seems patently clear, Hoxha has never acknowledged any connection between his fiction and any persons or nations, living or dead. In fact, in response to a review in the New York Review of Books of another of his works, "The Palace of Dreams", Kadare vehemently denied a similar suggestion. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that this may not have been the author's intention, it is hard not to draw parallels between the cruel and brutal regime of Enver Hoxha and life under the Pharaoh Cheops while reading The Pyramid.

As the story develops we see that the magnitude of the task is exceeded only by the brutality that accompanies its construction. In addition to the thousands of people killed by construction alone we see how thousands are killed in regular purges created in response to patently absurd conspiracy theories. Kadare shows deftly how Egypt's all-encompassing focus on the construction of the Pyramid invests the Pyramid with an almost ethereal quality such that the Pyramid seems to take on a life of its own.

This short description of the plot does not give The Pyramid the justice it deserves. Kadare, who won the first International Man Booker Prize in 2005, has a writing style that shares some of the same `genetic material' that marked the writing of Kafka without ever seeming derivative. That Kadare has a style all his own is clear even if the English versions of his works have been doubly-translated, from Albanian to French and then from French to English.

To date, I have read Kadare's Three Elegies For Kosovo,The Successor, The Palace of Dreams: A Novel (Arcade Classics), and now "The Pyramid". I would not have gotten beyond one book, let alone four, if there was not something compelling about Kadare's story-telling. I recommend "The Pyramid" to any reader with an interest in Eastern European literature or to any reader looking to discover a `new' writer.


The Accident
The Accident
by Ismail Kadare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars "Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.", 11 Nov. 2011
This review is from: The Accident (Paperback)
I once heard it said (perhaps with some sarcasm) that if a film has an ending, it is a movie; if it just stops, it is art. I suppose it can be said the same is true of books: if it has an ending, it is a novel; if it just stops it is literature. Ismail Kadare's latest work published in English, The Accident, just stops. It would be a stretch, however, to call this a great piece of literature.

Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and writer. He is also the winner of the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and was selected from a list of nominees that included Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Milan Kundera, and Gunter Grass. I've read and admired many of his works, including The Palace Of Dreams (Vintage Classics), The Successor, and The Pyramid. So I began The Accident with great anticipation. Although well-written, The Accident, did not engage me as other, better works by Kadare have.

The story, in short, involves the deaths of an Albanian woman, Rovena, and her long term lover, Bersfort in a taxi accident in Vienna. Given Bersfort mysterious background and his involvement with Rovena, Albanian and other Eastern European countries take a heightened interest in the crash investigation. When the investigations reveal nothing of particular interest a long researcher takes up the cudgels on his own. For the most part the book consists of this researcher's narrative account of the last 40 weeks of the couple's lives. The lives of the characters span the days before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain and trough the brutal break-up of Yugoslavia. During the narrative we are given glimpses and some speculation as to what their lives were like, what role if any they played in the history of the region and so on. That is an interesting backdrop for me and one that has in part kept me coming back to Kadare when I'm looking for fiction set in the Balkans.

Kadare does a few things very well in The Accident. He does tell a good story. He develops his characters over time and their character traits are reveled (to the extent they are revealed) in a rather good way. He does not actually reveal those traits explicitly as much as allow the reader to infer those traits from the narrative. At the same time, he does not reveal too much. He does leave a lot of room for the reader to actually look for meaning in the characters and their actions. He does not spoon feed you, so you have to be actively engaged in the book for it to be fully appreciated.

So far so good. However, in this instance, I think I just could not absorb, infer, or otherwise understand as much as I needed to for this to have been a truly rewarding experience. When Kadare was writing before the fall of the Hoxha regime the sometimes mystical or `clouded' approach to a story taken by Kadare seemed focused on telling a story between the lines. Now I could not help but feel that while some of the obscure writing remained there was little left between the lines to nod my head at. (I will add that this could very well be the result of my own rather superficial knowledge of the Albanian/Balkan experience. More knowledgeable readers may not have this issue at all.) That said I still enjoyed the narrative, even if I did not take out of the book as much as I could or should have.

If you are new to Kadare I suggest you start with his other works. If you start with The Accident you may not be inclined to go much further and that would be a shame. If you are familiar with Kadare's work you certainly wouldn't be wasting your time reading The Accident. While not, in my opinion, his best work, I think it still worth reading.


Hav
Hav
by Jan Morris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Farewell till then: I will go lose myself, and wander up and down to view the city.", 21 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Hav (Hardcover)
Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

The City-State of Hav is something of a mystical place. Nestled in critical cross-roads of the Mediterranean, Hav's history as a trading nation goes back to the ancient Greeks and in fact is rumored amongst some scholars to be the site of Troy. St. Paul's little-known Epistle to the Havians speaks of the inhabitants rather mercurial habits. Hav marked the furthest most expansion of olden Chinese trading settlements and that presence is still seen in some quarters. Hav's Russian, Italian, French, Chinese, Greek and Arabic neighborhoods all retain the ethnic and architectural flavors of the resident's ancestors. Hav's charms attracted, through the early years of the 20th-century some of the world's great celebrities all of whom feasted on Hav's rare snow raspberries.

Jan Morris, one of the world's great travel writers (amongst her other writing talents) has turned her keen eye for detail and her sharp prose to capture fully the flavor of the nation she first visited for six months in 1985. From her arrival in a train that courses down a mountainside through a dark, twisting tunnel custom built by the Russian's during their years in control of Hav to the haunting and beautiful Call to Prayer played by the great Hav musician, Missakian, on her first morning, Morris makes Hav come to life. You feel as if you are wandering the streets with her. You can sense the excitement as she watches Hav's annual Roof Race which course includes scaling buildings and leaping from roof to roof across the city. You can sense the danger on the day of her departure (the end of the first part of these memoirs) when you read about the fighter pilots screaming overhead as the infamous "Intervention" begins.

There's only one little point to keep in mind as you wander through Hav with Ms. Morris: Hav does not exist. Indeed, Hav is a fictional city created by Morris but treated by Morris throughout as a real place. When I picked up this book I was amused by Ursula Le Guin's brief but well-written introduction. I arched my eyebrows when I read that after the initial release of this book in the U.K. in 1985, travel agents received hundreds of requests, actually demands, for tours to Hav. I didn't really think of this as any more than exaggerated praise for a good writer. But, after reading both parts of Hav ("Last Letters from Hav" written in 1985 and "Hav of the Myrmidons", written in 2006) and despite knowing that Hav was no more real than Oz, I still wanted to go on line to book a trip to see this historic place. That is the power of the world that Morris has created.

Ms. Morris is the narrator and she takes us through her original six-month visit. At the risk of sounding a bit foolish I could not help thinking of Sim City when I read Hav. Sim City was/is a unique game in which you build and design your own city. Depending on the choice you make in housing, development, geography and so on the simulated city responds and grows in different ways. Morris has taken this one step further (the pen is mightier than a micro-chip apparently) and created not only her own city but also created a millennium of history for it. She has taken a two-dimensional simulation and added the dimension of a people and their characteristics and the dimension of time. The result is a remarkable four-dimensional look at a world that does not exist but which seems like it should exist.

There is no plot to speak of. However, the inclusion of "Hav of the Myrmidons" serves to put a bittersweet grace note to the end of the story of a nation and its peoples that put Last Letters from Hav in a contemporary context. Although there is no plot to spoil, I think it best for the reader to experience his/her journey through Hav with no additional details from me. In her Epilogue, Morris asks herself if there is one essential allegory to be found in her story of Hav. She responds that she does not know herself and "[j]ust as I wrote into the narrative my own meanings, bred by experience out of instinct, so I can only leave it to my readers, apologetically, to decide for themselves what it's all about." All I can suggest is that you will be well-served if you pick up this book and make your own journey. I am confident you will be glad you booked passage.

Highly recommended. Leonard Fleisig


Reveille in Washington: 1860-1885 (New York Review Books Classics)
Reveille in Washington: 1860-1885 (New York Review Books Classics)
by Margaret Leech
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Weep, wretched man, I'll aid thee tear for tear, 2 Aug. 2011
And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war;
Be blind with tears, and break o'ercharg'd with grief.
The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, Act II. Scene V

On March 4, 1861, U.S. President Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address, expressed the hope that the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Exactly, four years later, on March 4, 1865, Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, called on all Americans to go forward with "malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Those two stirring pleas to our better natures serve as ironic bookends for an American Civil War which unleashed carnage and bloodshed on U.S. soil the likes of which had never been seen before.

Margaret Leech's magisterial "Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865" was originally published in 1941. As James McPherson notes in his brief Introduction, Leech wrote and published the book just before WWII transformed a rather provincial capital city (aptly described by John F. Kennedy as "a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm") into a world capital. As the book opens, Washington, D.C. barely qualified as a city, let alone a nation's proud capital, a city for which Britain provided 'hardship supplements' for its diplomats. As the Civil War began there was no dome on the Capitol and the Washington Monument was not much more than a pile of granite. The streets were dirty and unkempt, open drainage ditches carried raw sewage across most of the avenues, and the town was filled with bawdy houses and transients. The book highlights not just the progress of the war but also the transformation of the city into a true national Capital.

I was captivated by Reveille for a number of reasons. Leech's research seemed very thorough and her writing was excellent. She has an exceedingly fine eye for detail and was able to convey those details to the reader. This is particularly true when she describes the city itself. I've worked in Washington for the last 20 years and my office sits right in the middle of "old Washington." I see the old General Post Office and Ford's Theatre from my office. As a resident of Washington, every day I walk the streets and look up and see remnants of Civil War era Washington. As Leech tells her story those streets and buildings came alive for me with almost a fresh set of eyes. That is a rare feeling for me, that sense of living and walking though history. Leech's book invoked those feelings throughout.

In addition to her ability to bring a city to life, Leech has also done an admirable job of bringing the city's characters to life. Leech has a sharp eye not just for Lincoln, Seward, McClellan Grant and the larger than life big players in the war, but also casts a sharp and detailed eye on lesser-known figures. Washington was a southern city in those days and sympathy for secession and slavery was more the norm than the exception. Leech is able to weave these characters, large and small, seamlessly into her narrative while also providing a wealth of information of the war that was waged in the Virginia countryside within `spitting' distance of the capital.

Written in 1942, some contemporary readers may find Leech's prose-style a bit dated and perhaps a bit too florid. Some have even suggested (elsewhere) that Leech's prose-style seemed to almost channel what may have been the prose style in fashion during the Civil War. I did not have any such problem and in fact Leech's writing had the same page-turning effect on me that some of the best fiction has. The only jarring notes I heard involved her use of common terms for slaves and freemen (`colored' for example) which while they may have been perfectly acceptable in 1941 seem quite out of place in 2011. Again, that is a reflection on our national evolution and not a criticism of Ms. Leech and I set it out for the benefit of potential readers who may have qualms about such things, even in period pieces.

I think Leech's "Reveille in Washington" is a tremendous addition to accounts of the Civil War. One may despair that we have never consistently acted upon the better angels of our nature or lived our lives with malice toward none, but Leech's book brings to life a time in the history of the United States where much blood was shed to swell the chorus of its union. In that sense this book is one that bespeaks a mighty hope.

Highly recommended. L. Fleisig


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