Tuesday, November 26, 2013

If the Dead Rise Not

If the Dead Rise Not
© 2011 Phillip Kerr
464 pages

            Bernie Gunther would be your standard-issue world-weary detective were it not for the fact that he just killed a Nazi.  Gunther has no love for the Nazis, who took power in his beloved Germany a year ago, and have in the year 1934 managed to reduce it to a joyless place for those who enjoy fast talk and loose women. Gunther is especially fond of both. Having quit his position in the police department to avoid having to fuss with the cretins in power, Gunther became the house detective of Berlin’s grandest hotel.  As it turns out, however, he has by no means removed himself from danger, and when an obnoxious American gangster claims a Ming dynasty artifact was stolen from his room, Gunther meets a man whose schemes will see the wisecracking detective arrested, and hauled out into the open ocean to be killed.  Though the man Max Reles appears to be a boorish businessman with a few shady operations, in actuality he’s in bed with Hitler – or intent on making der Fuhrer his purse. The political intrigue doesn't stop with Hitler, as the last fifth of the novel takes place in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The odd coupling of time and place that also appeared in Field Grey works here as well. If the Dead Rise Not is in turns disturbing and spectacularly funny;  one of the reasons Gunther can’t avoid trouble is his tendency to shoot off his mouth, and the book features a rolling barrage of one-liners, mostly taking shots at the Nazis. There are the usual thrills, of course – chase scenes, murders, numerous points wherein he seems well and truly doomed – and the obligatory twist and turn of the plot. Disturbing comes with all of the characters tendency to live in moral grey ares; the villain, who by actions ought to be detested, is one of the most entertaining men to read. Even Bernie, for whom he is a principle villain, can’t help but be tempted by liking him.  Happily,  everyone reaps what they sow, and eventually Reles meets the usual end of people who work with those like Meyer Lanksy.


"A Nazi is someone who follows Hitler. To be anti-Nazi is to listen to what he says." p. 70

"German history is nothing more than a series of ridiculous mustaches."  p. 73

"These days a considerate German is someone who doesn't knock on your door early in the morning in case you think it's the Gestapo." p. 86

"A German is a man who manages to overcome his worst prejudices. A Nazi is a man who turns them into laws." p. 88

Monday, November 25, 2013

This week the library: NaNoWriMo, Sharpe, and histories

We're in the last week of National Novel Writing Month, and I can cheerfully report that I am not woefully behind, having faithfully plugged away almost every night. If I can make up for a couple of missed days, I should manage my 50,000 words. I'd regale fellow nano-writers out there with tales of my zany characters and oddball plot, but it's no grant adventure what I've been writing, just bits and pieces of a coming-of-age story in which a largely unsympathetic main character persists in prolonging misery by hiding from his own life, but keeps meeting people who, inexplicably, wish to draw him out into it. These include a redneck Marxist and a kindly priest.  Once I've gotten the 50,000 words, I really must on making the main character somewhat likeable. At the moment he's scarcely more than a grouch.

But speaking of books I am reading, or have read, instead of one I am pretending to write, this past week I finished a couple, including another Phillip Kerr novel which comments are largely ready for. Moments ago I finished Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, which made a lot more sense once I realized it had been written in 1998. It will receive comments later in the week. On a more serious note, last week I finished two works of history, The South vs the South and Train Time. Train Time deserves more consideration than a brief mention here, but The South was largely disappointing despite being well put together. It is largely focused with the role of slaves in the war, covering the politics of wartime emancipation splendidly. My interest in reading this was in discovering more about the effect of dissent and rebellion of white farmers and townsfolk against the Confederacy, and they are ignored wholly:  they only featured in a chapter on the border states which reveals how apathetic southerners could be about the planters' republic.  David Williams had  a far more interesting canvas, but then his didn't have nearly the detailed documentation. If only I could have the best of both worlds -- well, there's always The Free State of Jones,  which is another in this genre of historical nonfiction I've found.

This week, I'm with Richard Sharpe in France, where he's almost hoping Napoleon will give up without further fighting -- hardly surprising considering the bloody road through Spain he's taken to get to Toulouse. I am expecting in the mail another book on travel and physical adventure. It was irresistible given the title. That will probably wait until December, though -- Sharpe will keep me company as I try to finish my own little campaign.  I look forward to reporting success on Sunday or Monday!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Martin Eden

Martin Eden
© 1908 Jack London
381 pages

For its first two thirds, Martin Eden is a uplifting tale of art and romance about a man of humble means who hauls himself up to a better station in life in pursuit of a woman, discovering his own soul in the process. This inspiring story turns quickly to tragedy, however, when it reveals how quickly and utterly lost a soul can be when disappearing on the heights of achievement, boasting about its own success.

Martin  Eden is a working-class sailor, positively rippling with masculine virility and sharply intelligent.  When he saves the life of a soft, pampered Oakland scion named Arthur Morse, he's invited to dinner by him in gratitude. Arthur warns his family that he's bringing home a wild man, but his sister Ruth is positively undone by Martin's sheer presence. He, too, is wowed by her; while he embodies everything wild, masculine, and rough, she embodies (very prettily) everything civilized, feminine, classy, and tender. The two worship one another within their own minds, but he realizes she is as far above his grasp as the angels, unless he can learn to talk as her family talks, and about the same subjects they deem fit: art, literature, and philosophy. Armed with curiosity, will, and the ability to master any subject through independent study, Martin submits to Ruth's desire to civilize him. But Ruth unwittingly creates a monster: drunk with love, idealism, and the thought of becoming a great author, Eden abandons all but study and art. The book records his quest of self-cultivation through study, self-expression through his struggling writer's career, and ultimately, self-aggrandizement. It is the latter that turns this story of accomplishment into tragedy, for Martin's triumph is achieved only by the loss of everything  within him worthwhile.

Martin Eden bears a close resemblance to Wolf Larsen, the fearful beast-man antagonist of The Sea Wolf, who like Eden was a self-taught intellectual master, but simultaneously a physical titan.  Both hold themselves to the ideal of the Nietzschean superman, the man shackled by nothing -- no chains on their thoughts, their bodies, or their hearts.  They were to be men without limit, who conquered the world before them and recognized no law save that of the wild: kill or be killed, triumph or perish. While Wolf Larsen was countered by a soft professor who became a 'man in full', full of wild strength but tempering it with civilized morality,  Martin encounters no worthy adversary. Having rejecting all, he is without anything, and though having achieved his goal he feels no joy in it  he is left with nothing but bitter loneliness, the kind of deep-seated alienation that leads inevitably downward.  I found it profoundly depressing, and imagine this to be London's goal; Martin is a tragic figure, almost Lucifer-like in his fall , and the greatest sadness is that he never recognizes that he  has done himself a disservice in embracing the philosophy of the Self over all.  Martin Eden has beautiful prose, and inspired characters, but the cautionary tale has such a harrowing ending that it almost prompts regret in having read it, thought nothing so thought-provoking and insightful should be ignored.

The Sea Wolf, Jack London
The Pearl, John Steinbeck

The Man Who Cycled the World

The Man Who Cycled the World
© 2011 Mark Beaumont
400 pages

Why did Mark Beaumont decide to try and break the world record for circumnavigating the world by bicycle? Well, it beat law school. In his early twenties, with his life's course unclear but full of energy and thirsty for adventure, Beaumont decided to tackle what few had before: cycling the world. His ambition was high, to break the record for doing it by at least two months, and the road ahead along. For nearly three hundred days, he pedaled -- starting in Paris, traveling to Istanbul, and then on to Calcutta via Iran and Pakistan, finally taking ships to Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States to cycle them in turn before returning to Europe at Portugal and ending in Paris again. Beaumont’s journey takes the reader with him through pleasant villages, congested cities, mesmerizing country scenes and desolate wildernesses beset by war. Though he largely escapes physical harm, (aside from being hit by a car in Texas, and mugged in Louisiana)  both he and his bike are put to the test by the 100-mile  days.  Through sickness and broken wheels, Beaumont had to struggle with not only  pedaling  upwards to 200 kilometers some days through hills and valleys, on roads that were sometimes scarcely more than dirt ruts, but cultural obstacles as well.  Although the English language is a world empire of its own,  communicating with the people whom he met and arranging food, lodging proved a constant struggle once outside of Europe.  Try finding a bike shop in the middle of a warzone, or worse -- in the United States.

Beaumont didn't do this alone;  shielded in part by the British embassy (presumably because of the BBC's interest in filming him) and guided by his dear mother in Scotland, he was also aided by the many strangers he met along the way.  Although the world is not filled with saints, it is peppered with them, and Beaumont was given a helping hand,  and a meal and a bed in a private home more often than he was scowled at or attacked. A global journey such as his offers the reader plenty of scope for adventure, peril, and a variety of landscapes, and Beaumont's account makes the most of these while minimizing  those portions of the journey which were more tedious.  This is one of the better cycling memoirs I've read, and I'm happy to learn that Beaumont has another. In his epilogue, he mentioned that after this journey he decided to climb the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley in Alaska,  then cycle down the coasts of North, Central, and South America to climb the highest peak there, Mt. Aconcagua.  He has now cycled in every continent save Africa and Antartica, and I intend on reading his The Man who Cycled the Americas as soon as it is available in US markets. (Or, I may just buy one from the UK. It certainly wouldn't be the first book of mine which has arrived bearing the marks of the Royal airmail.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Teaser Tuesday 19 Nov: Martin Eden

"Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for -- ay, and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world."

p. 8, Martin Eden; Jack London

Share your own 'teases' at Should Be Reading!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

This week at the library: Jack London, the e-lectric telegraph, and the consequences of sex

Today I made my monthly trip to my university library, where under skies threatening thunderstorms I happily lost myself in the stacks for a few hours. I came home with a bag of books, including...

  • The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage
  • Martin Eden, Jack London
  • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature,  Matt Ridley
  • A Scientist in the City, James Trefil
  • small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered,  E.F. Schumacher

I'd hoped to find books relating to Mount Everest or the Appalachian Trail, but alas! None were to be found. I'm sure they're in there; I've never had luck searching the catalogue of libraries using Library of Science classification.  Earlier in the week I checked out High Into the Thin Cold Air by Sir Edmund Hillary, which I thought would chronicle his ascent, the first known successful one. Turns out it's about his attempt to look for the Abominable Snowman. I can't say I expected that..

This next week I'll be reading from the books listed above, but some items from my home library will get priority; I have Sharpe's Revenge and The Men Who United the States, the latter of which seems to be a little adventure and a little economic history.

Inside the library, they were celebrating No-Shave November in amusing style.


You may recognize that volume on the bottom from a couple of years ago..

Well, 'til next week -- happy reading! 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
291 pages
© 1997 Jon Krakauer

When Outside magazine dispatched Jon Krakauer to join an expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1996 to investigate its commercialization, the opportunity allowed him to fulfill a lifelong dream of climbing to its top -- but in May 1996, that dream turned quickly into a nightmare, as Krakauer was intimate witness to one of Everest's greatest climbing disasters.  Into thin Air is his record of the experience, written less to fulfill Outside's hopes for an examination of profiteering and more as a way of coming to terms with the loss of so many people he'd spent nearly four weeks with.  It is at first exciting, then harrowing; an inspiring, longer climb up to the heights of human endeavor  that crashes quickly, sliding down a boulder-filled crevasse into the abyss.

Mount Everest stands as the highest above-ground mountain in the world, being part of the Himalayan mountain range that forms the border of Tibet and Nepal. The difficulty in ascending it lies not merely with the frequent winds, biting cold, or the fact that parts of the approach are icy, narrow, or so steep that they require technical skills with ropes to surmount. Nor is the difficulty limited to Everest's status as a natural gauntlet resembling an old-school video game, in which climbers must dodge falling rocks and ice missles from above while simutaneously hoping the ground underneath them doesn't give way. The greatest obstacle to human ascent is the fact that much of the peak towers so high that oxygen levels are but a third of what they are at sea level. Even ordinary respiatory requirements would find that amount insufficient, and a person dropped onto the peak by magic or a transporter would find himself unconscious in minutes. But climbing nearly 30,000 feet -- the cruising altitude of a transcontinental jet, like the Airbus Krakauer took to Nepal --   requires considerably more. Even when relying on canisters of bottled oxygen,   those who near the peak are operating on mental and physical vapors; their bodies find the effort of digestion so hard at that height that they prefer to consume muscle tissue for fuel. Physically exhausted and mentally handicapped at the peak, the difficulty in scaling Everest is returning to the ground safely. This proves tragically true with Krakauer's expedition.

In spite of the difficulty, Mount Everest is enormously popular both among serious mountaineers as well as rich would-be outdoorsmen who are anxious to prove their manliness by subduing the world's greatest physical challenges. When Krakauer joined a commercial expedition -- Adventure Consulants, run by an enthusiastic mountaineer named Rob Hall -- he was among nearly fifty people intending to climb up at once. That number included not only another commercial group, Mountain Madness, but various teams from Taiwan and South Africa, and a few enterprising individuals like a young Swede who bicycled from Europe to Nepal before hoofing it up the mountain.  The price for trying is enormous; even before equipment and plane fare are factored in, Nepal requires licenses to climb that start at $10,000 a head -- or $25,000 for individuals working alone.  Commercial guides like Hall and his nascent rival Scott Fischer (of Mountain Madness) charge even more, up to $65,000 in Hall's case.  That cost overs not only the guides' expertise, but their prepatory work; not only had Hall made the summit seven times prior, but he employed a crew of local Sherpas to establish ropes and create caches of supplies for his clients. For all their experience and preparation, however, humans high upon the peak of Everest are very subject to the wrath of Nature.

Though Jon Krakauer -- an experienced mountaineer -- was the first of his group to make the summit, and returned safely to one of their staging camps before nightfall, few of his team were as lucky. A fantastic storm hit the mountain as dozens of individuals were in the middle of climbing or descending, and it would be their undoing. Fierce winds not only destroyed physical guides, like the ropes, and flattened tents, but they prevented climbers from making progress at all; on narrow ledges and icy paths, any movement in the wrong direction could lead to death -- and it did.  They had to stay where they were, and every moment brough them closer to disaster, because once they exhausted their oxygen bottles, they would quickly become weak and delerious, if not not fatally hill;   high altitude and low pressure are lethal to a human body unadapted for either. As their brains were deteriorating, their bodies were increasingly numbed by the cold. Even those who had found a secure place to rest were not exempt from dangers of low oxygen or prolonged exposure.  Once the storm hit on May 10,   a disaster was born and people began to die at rates unseen outside of a slasher film.  Some were taken by the cold, others thrown into darkness by the wind.  Those involved in the commercial expeditions were the most badly ravaged,  in part because of their location and in part because they lost their leadership -- and once the guides were gone, a team of mountain-climbing novices were no match for the fury of of an awakened mount.  In a final chapter, Krakaurer -- whose authorial voice loses its edge as the disaster waxes, becoming increasingly desperate -- tries to explain what happened. Why was the 1996 expedition so lethal?   He puts forth a few guesses; the sheer number of people on the slopes, practically inviting catastophe, and the fact that their guide had never encountered a storm before. His prior ascents had all been blessed with clear skies, so reliably perfect for climbing that Hall regarded May 10 as an auspicious day for himself: all of his  summits were achieved on that day.

Into thin Air is a gripping look into what it takes -- and what it can cost -- to climb Mount Everest,  though it leaves one wondering why on Earth anyone would do it after Sir Edmund Hillary.  There is no reward for the hours of agony; the vista is barren and lifeless. Even Krakauer, who had dreamed of Everest, recorded that at the peak, he was too exhausted to care about his success.

Monday, November 11, 2013

This week at the library: NaNoWriMo, rebels against the rebellion, death on Everest, and maaaaybe Richard Sharpe

Dear readers:

For the first time in the five or so years I've been aware of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, I am attempting to participate. For those who have not heard of this, it's a challenge in which participants commit to write, in the month of November, a 50,000 word novel. This amounts to writing ~1700 words a day,  which is more difficult than it sounds considering not only the tendency of life to pop up and claim time meant for writing, but the fact that you have to have something to write about.  I'm participating not because I have a coherent novel to write, but because  I like the idea of forcing myself to sit down every night and work on on growing one thing. I've missed two days, but am off this Saturday and intend on catching up...providing I think can of something to write. At present I have decided to have my main character chased into the woods by dogs. I assume I can get a few thousand words out of him trying to get back to civilization.

Over the last week or so I've finished a handful of books, both fiction and non-. I resumed Wendell Berry's "Port William" series with Nathan Coulter, which was the first book I've read by Berry that didn't bowl me over. It's the first book in the series, and is principally about the relationship between three generations of Coulter men after Nathan's mother dies. Nathan is a short novel, and lacking completely the commentary characters add in Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter on the changes they see in town. It helps that very little time passes in Nathan Coulter, for the title character is still a boy at its end.

Another book I've finished with is The Last Human, a "guide to 22 species of extinct humans".  This work is essentially a catalog of fossils, with a few brief documentary 'stories' about the man-apes included, and supplemented with lots of fetching photos. Each chapter details the fossils for a given species (which can be very scant; sometimes amounting to nothing more than bits and pieces of a skull), technical descriptions of the remains (describing, for instance, the thickness of brow ridges or the orientation of a given orifice), and speculations on their behavior and diet given their bones as we have them, and the environment of the time. It's more suitable as a reference, a snapshot of how little we know presently, than as a popular introduction to the natural history of humans.

I also finished two works which will get comments: CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters, which I was taken by, and Train Time, a bit of business projection.

In the next week, I intend for my reading to remain light: I have a book on interlibrary loan, The South vs. The South, and have checked out Sharpe's Revenge. However, earlier today someone posted a link to a story detailing -- of all things -- the number of bodies laying about Mount Everest of would-be climbers who succumbed to the elements, and who are not retrievable because of the ravages of the environment. Because of the extreme cold, there are people up there who've been deceased for nearly a century. Anyhoo, after that I spent several hours reading about Mount Everest expeditions and learned that not only is it very dangerous and wretchedly painful, but costs $25,000 for permission from the Nepalese government to try. I may be reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, who participated in an infamously lethal expedition back in 1996.   If I had that much money to spend on one recreational trip, I would not use it to climb a mountain that killed one in four people . I'd learn to fly and rent a P-51, I think...

Happy reading -- and happy writing, to my fellow nanowrimo participants.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Consumers' Republic

A Consumers' Republic
© 2002 Lizbeth Cohen
576 pages

What is the meaning of citizenship? To the Romans, and to the early Americans, citizenship was an exclusive state of being that depended on owning land, and so a stake in society. In the early twentieth century, however, as suffrage waxed more universal and markets were flooded with goods made for the masses, citizenship took on a different meaning. To be a citizen of a modern, capitalist  democracy was to be a Consumer;  voices rang out most strongly at the marketplace, not the ballot box.  In A Consumer's Republic, author Lizbeth Cohen examines the way the burgeoning consumer market effected political activism.  Beginning with consumer activist groups who protested high prices amid the Depression, her history examines the Civil Rights and feminist movements through the lens of consumption.  Consumer equality, not income distribution, would create a classless society. Women fought for the right to have their own bank accounts and lines of credit in addition to equal wages;  blacks labored for just prices in stores as well as unhindered access to the vote.  This is an account of social, political, marketing history, intertwined together.  Consumption didn't just serve individual desires; as Keynsianism became the dominant economic philosophy, intellectuals and citizen-consumers alike saw their compulsive buying as not only fun, but patriotic: their every new gadget grew the economy.  The consumers' republic began to die in the 1970s  and 1980s amid economic turbulence; even though people continued to buy more and more,  the political aspect of their purchasing, the meaning they had given it, fell away, both because the economy no longer responded as Keynes promised and their motives became more purely self-focused and only tangently connected to the thought of improving the nation's fortunes.

  Although occasionally touching on the negative aspects of the rapidly expanding consumer culture -- the growth of suburbia, for instance --  A Consumers' Republic is not a polemic raging against consumerism, and effects open to interpretation,  like the consequences of consumerism on citizens' peace of mind, are not touched on. It has a scholarly feel, though a 'popular' look;  the art is well-done, including plenty of large black and white photographs that demonstrate the point at hand, and stylized headings that bring to mind advertisements from the 1950s. One particularly effective illustration shows the evolution of advertising in Ebony magazine from the 1950s to the 1970s, as white-owned haircare manufactures realized that (1) blacks were a market and (2) that black people were a different market. They gradually transition from a white model demonstrating hair treatment lotion to a black model advertising products related to 'natural' hair.   Republic is a fascinating look at another side of the rise of consumption,  impressively thorough in that respect, and free of scathing criticism if not critical substance.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sharpe's Siege

Sharpe's Siege
© 1987 Bernard Cornwell
352 pages

               Napoleon may not realize it, but his wars are lost. The English have achieved total naval supremacy,  and are free to raid the coasts of the imperial hexagon at their leisure. Richard Sharpe, whose sturdy Riflemen are in part responsible for l’Empereur’s imminent job loss, has been dispatched on one such raid. His orders are to capture a small but potentially bothersome fort, and possibly wander over to Bordeaux, where it is said the people are clamoring for the restoration of the Bourbons. Alas for Sharpe,  he is a pawn twice over; he has been invited to join the raid only so the bumbling generals in charge of it will have hope of victory, or at the very least a good scapegoat – and the generals themselves are operating on suspect intelligence fed to them by French counterintelligence mastermind, Pierre Ducos.  When Ducos learns that the redcoats are up for a little raiding and Sharpe is with him, he takes a personal interest in not only rendering their plans moot, but condemning Sharpe to die.  In short order, the good rifleman is trapped in France with no hope of escape but an American pirate who was to have hung for crimes against the Crown.   Sharpe’s  Siege distinguishes itself from many other Sharpe novels in that the military action is wholly fabricated; the raid he participates in never took place.  Although the military scenes are full of excitement and explosions and the like,  they take second place to Ducos’ scheming; there’s no doubt that Sharpe will capture the fort and then defend it against a host of embarrassed Frenchmen, but getting out of the greater trap is an altogether different feat. What I appreciated most about it was the mixing-in of naval action. Alas for me, there are only two more Sharpe books waiting – Sharpe’s  Revenge, which is next, and then  Sharpe’s Waterloo.

Hitler's Peace

Hitler's Peace
© 2006 Phillip Kerr
464 pages

Willard Mayer has the strangest luck. How many people get to dine with FDR, talk about the worries of life with Winston Churchill, annoy Joseph Stalin, and shake hands with Adolf Hitler? And this after they've  been arrested several times for espionage given a string of bodies trailing behind them. Mayer's no murderer or spy, even if once in his impressionable youth he was a member of the Communist party and passed information to the Soviet intelligence service, the NKVD.  The year is 1943, and Mayer is a philosopher-turned-OSS agent who is accompanying FDR to an ultra top-secret conference as a German translator/intelligence strategist. The confidential conference in Tehran -- the one so concealed that everyone and their twitchy uncle knows about - is the first coming together of the Big Three: FDR,Churchill, and Stalin. But more will happen there than will ever be publicly known, for while some Germans are planning the assassinations  of the allied trio, others intend to entice them into an early peace.

Hitler's Peace is exciting from beginning to end, a bit of historical fiction that occupies a grey area between historical and alternate fiction. Although history is fundamentally unchanged, Kerr's plot explores facts considered odd and provides a highly speculative explanation. Truth is stranger than fiction, however; I was astonished to learn that some events within the novel which strained credibility actually occurred, like the string of calamities that beset the Willie D. Porter, one of the ships escorting FDR to the conference. Within hours, the ship backed into and destroyed another ship, saw a man vanish into the sea, blew a boiler, dropped a depth charge, and just for good measure, fired a torpedo directly at FDR's ship. "She's not what you would call a lucky ship", the baffled president noted shortly before ordering the ship to detach itself from the convoy and deliver its crew for total arrest at the nearest port.  The cast of characters is largely German (Mayer is the son of German immigrants),which is a refreshing change.  They're all antagonists who are neither sympathetic nor overtly villainous; the Nazi regime's crimes against humanity are not ignored, but neither are those of the Russians, and the revelation of several Soviet slaughters features as a plot point. The novel plays fast and loose with history, but touches on aspects of the war largely ignored (Soviet war crimes, for instance, or "Operation Long Jump"). I found it entertaining, though Mayer is only marginally more sympathetic than the book's 'baddies'.

Monday, November 4, 2013

This week at the library: airborne hell, David Sedaris, and coffee with evil

Last week I broke off from The City in History to do some light reading, beginning with Phillip Kerr's Hitler's Peace, a bit of speculative historical fiction which will be getting full comments tonight. The novel features an Office of Strategic Services agent accompanying President Roosevelt to the Big Three conference at Tehran in 1943, where he keeps getting arrested after insisting there are German spies at work. Considering the string of murders and catastrophes that follow him and Roosevelt,  he might be on to something.  It's a fun WW2 thriller, but the big attraction is how often the lead character rubs shoulders with titanic personalities --  and not just the Big Three.

After that I read through Elliot Hester's Plane Insanity, which collects outrageous tales taken from his years of service as an airline steward. Most of the stories concern the bad behavior of passengers --who break into fist fights and sneak pythons aboard -- though there are some involving the airline crew's own flubs, like the time the author opened an emergency door and witnessed the jump chute (the inflatable tube that allows passengers to escape).   It's an entertaining enough read, though it certainly makes the life of airline service unappealing: Hester's experience reveals  nothing but fourteen-hour days filled with the worst experiences in customer service, with air turbulence thrown into the mix, and a life lived in hotel rooms and buses sometimes enlivened by raucous parties and meaningless sex. Neither Hester nor any of his coworkers seem to take much pleasure, let alone fulfillment, from their jobs.

After that I enjoyed thoroughly David Sedaris' Lets Explore Diabetes with Owls, a curious collection of essays and short pieces of fiction. The fiction defies classification;  the only stories told are presented as true tales from Sedaris' life (delivered in his dry, inappropriate, and pathos-inspiring way) , but mixed in with them are oddities like a letter written from a lady to her sister, chiding her for giving a pizza coupon as a wedding gift. (Nevermind that  the lady's driving led to her sister being crippled and dumped by her boyfriend, and that said boyfriend just happened to be the man the lady was marrying..) A few of the pieces can be tenatively tied together under the heading travel, but it's largely a collection of miscllenaeous pieces. Sedaris writes on the usual topics: his dyfunctional family, the oddities of life, and the ocassional animal fixation. It's a second-tier Sedaris book, I think; far better than Holidays on Ice, which I read for the Santaland Diaries and nothing else,  but not quite as funny as say, Me Talk Pretty One Day

This week, I am engaged in Sharpe's Siege, where the good rifleman is once again running around doing the impossible with thrilling heroics and not a few one-liners from his compatriots. This one mixes in naval action with the land engagment, and features an American privateer.  So far, so good. Once that's finished I''ll return to The City in History. I think if I can make it to the medieval epoch, I'll be all right.  Waiting in the wings is Wendell Berry's Nathan Coulter, which is not at all as spellbinding as Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter were.