Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst

Thought a change of pace was due in the posts. Sort of like Becky's "Valley of the Dolls" without the drugs. The story concerns an Italian refugee living in Paris just before WWII and writing for Reuters. He's also the new editor of an underground Italian newspaper critical of the fascists. The old editor got shot in a staged double murder and the paper's remaining workers deal with the Italian secret police operating in Paris who are trying to take them out and close the paper. There's also a couple of love interests that pop up with complications.
Although the story sounds trite or pedestrian it is saved by the author. He makes the characters believable and the action moves along without too much violence or car chasing. The author who comes closest to him appears to be John LeCarre in his earlier books. Not quite as bleak but relatively realistic. If you like political intrigue, you should like this book. I did.

Friday, July 11, 2008

1421 by Gavin Menzies

Here goes another history like "Guns, Germs and Steel." The premise is that all the Europeans who we've been taught discovered the routes to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Antarctica and the North Pole were not the first to do so. A giant fleet of hundreds of ships sent by the emperor of China in 1421 to map all the unknown worlds accomplished all those feats, sometimes as much as 300 or more years before Europeans followed in their wake. In addition, although the Europeans were brave men who accomplished their voyages at great risk, it was not without prior knowledge. Prince Henry the Navigator had maps made in the 1420's and beyond based on Chinese maps that accurately showed Africa, the Americas, Australia, Antarctica and the far east. Columbus, Magellan, and the other Portuguese and Spanish explorers mention in their ship's logs and diaries that the places they encountered were where they were supposed to be according to those maps. Columbus's reporting errors back to the Spanish of having found China make sense when viewed in context. He had lied to the Spanish royalty that a quicker route to China could be accomplished going west while the Portuguese were going to China around Africa. If the Spanish, who did not know about the maps (but Columbus did) had thought the Portuguese would get there first, the Spanish would not have funded Columbus's journey.

In addition to already knowing the route based on Chinese maps, all of the explorers mentioned encountering Chinese or Chinese goods in all those places. It appears that as Chinese ships wrecked in these various places, crews were left in place to set up colonies until future fleets could return to relieve them. DNA from tribes in the Americas, including the Sioux, the Navajo, some in the northeast U.S., plus Central and South America show Chinese ancestry. Even peoples who come from far northern Norway have the southeastern Chinese DNA. Tribes in Peru and on the North American west coast spoke and dressed as Chinese when first encountered by Spanish explorers and priests. The evidence of first contact by the Chinese prior to European exploration is massive, with over 1000 articles and books worldwide written over many decades on different aspects of the subject.

So how come we never heard about this in school. It turns out that when the fleet returned to China, rather than receiving a hero's welcome, they found that the old emperor was dying and the new emperors thereafter wanted nothing further to do with foreign trade and travel. That deep ocean travel and trade had been going on for at least 800 years up to that point. They ordered all maps and writings about the global trek to be destroyed. The deep water ships then in existence were to be destroyed or left to rot and the extensive trading system in the Pacific and Indian Oceans to be all but ended. However, sailors and merchants from other countries, including at least one European had sailed with the fleet for large segments of the journey and recorded their experiences. At least one of the Europeans made his way back to the map making center of Europe and is the probable source for the information on the maps used by Prince Henry.

The same strengths and weaknesses of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" are present in this book. The way that the story is pieced together is interesting and well done. However, the use of the personal pronoun "I" appears with too much frequency. A good rule of thumb in business writing is to never use any personal pronouns; once every 50 to 100 pages is about right in any other literary form other than fiction. The author's self reference is defensible because he takes on such a major paradigm shift in how historic oceanic exploration is currently taught that a little self-defensive rhetoric is understandable. However, it increases near the end of the book and makes the argument more strident than necessary. If you don't become too wrapped up in the names of the Chinese emperors and admirals and in geometric discussions of solving for latitude and longitude, the story flows well. It's a good read and the author makes his case. Once again "history as it's taught in school is bunk."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Valley of the Dolls

I decided to read this book because it's a cult classic and I wanted something light for the summer (unlike you, Amanda!) And, it didn't disappoint. It was exactly what I was looking for - campy, light, mindless, funny. A great beach read, and I feel like it belongs proudly next to the typical classics (1984, Lord of the Rings, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Kill a Mockingbird) - every classic has it's place. What was even more interesting to me was that Jacqueline Susann (author) apparently modeled the three main characters after Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe. I would be lying if I said I didn't spend the majority of the book trying to figure out who was who - but you know I love that crap.
The story is basically about three women trying to make it in NYC/Hollywood, and their lives all become intertwined by a Broadway play. They become friends and share a propensity to be famous/rich and date/marry the wrong men. Oh yeah - and they do a ton of drugs! These women were kinda' messed up, and it made for a great read! (I know that sounds awful...but it's true.)
It's a soap opera sure to keep you turning the pages - if this is the kind of book you're looking for (which...not sure any of you are. But I stand by it!)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Jackie reviewed this book a long time ago. Rather than add a comment to her review, I've added this so it won't go unnoticed. Jackie suggested it and I started slowly. It's not a mystery or history or biography, just a story of different people fleeing Paris as the Germans advance in WWII and later the dynamics of the occupation of a small French town after the surrender. The more I read, the more I kept picking it up with greater frequency. The writer did not leave in a spare word or miss the mark on any description, be it a garden in spring or the different feelings of characters. By the end, I didn't want the book to end.
Maybe that reluctance was because the author, a Russian transpanted Jew in France since 1920, did not intend the book to end where it did. She saw what was happening to occupied France and knew her days were numbered. She intended the book to have two more major segments (the book is divided into two now) and you can see her intent in the first appendix. The second appendix is correspondence between the author and others as she attempted to keep going under every more severe circumstances. The letters from her husband attempting to have her set free once she was sent to the camps break your heart. Finally, the preface to the French addition behind the two appendicies give a sketch of her family life from prior to her birth to after her death. That story in itself would make a novel worth reading.
You seldom see books written this well, with people drawn so true-to-life without a lot of fluff. Yet it is not a sparse book. The story is rich and compelling. I said this was not a mystery, history or biography. There is no mystery in the broad flow of these people's lives and the things that happen to them make sense. It's not a history but may be a better glimpse into occupied France than anything else I've encounter. Finally, the description of Ms. Nemirovsky's life and that of her family in the last few pages are as moving as any biography I've encountered. I recommend this book to everyone.