2666, Roberto Bolaño
I put this one on my list* because I read online somewhere (probably NYT, NYRB, or the New Yorker… for someone who’s never lived in New York I sure need to diversify my media consumption) that Bolaño is the best thing since sliced bread. Or maybe it was James Joyce. In any event, 2666 went on my list and it turns out my local library had it. Well, 2666 falls under the category “I read it so you don’t have to”; that is: skip it. It consists of five tangentially related books, each of which is about five times too long. I only enjoyed the last one, and that was probably because I was no longer reading a horribly depressing and repetitive recounting of feminicide in northern Mexico. I’m sure there’s lots of great symbolism and such about the decay of modern society in there, but unless you are an English major (or Spanish major, I guess) or have a companion book and a lot of time, just move on. I still have no idea what the number 2666 has to do with anything.
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
While also rather long, this one falls at the other end of the complexity spectrum of 2666. (Well, it’s not a children’s book, that is, but it is a fantasy novel.) Marion Zimmer Bradley first came to my attention years ago as one of Michael D.C. Drout’s “worthy successors to Tolkein”, and weeks ago it happened to be on display at my library. She provides a feminist (or at least female-centric) interpretation of the Arthurian cycle, and–despite my quip to Anna one night that it mostly consists of “women herb-ing each other left, right, and center”–it is definitely worth your time, if you are at all interested in King Arthur specifically or fantasy literature in general.
Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks
Another Iain M. Banks science fiction novel, this one tells the story of two war veterans, one of a “good war” (I think) that calls to mind the contemporary view of World War Two, and the other of a civil war caused by external influence, which seemed to me to be a sort of commentary on the (most recent) Iraq War. While I don’t think it’s the most insightful commentary on the experiences of the modern veteran (for more on that, see the next book report post), it does manage to comment well on the human condition. As an aside, this is the second time I’ve read this book, because I accidentally got it from the library, not realizing I’d read it before. I suppose that’s either a negative comment on the book’s memorability or a positive comment on its quality–probably both. In any event, I do recommend Iain M. Banks’ science fiction to all, starting with The Algebraist and moving on to the Culture series (of which this is a part).
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
The unquestionable winner of this round-up, Half of a Yellow Sun follows three characters through the Nigerian Civil War. You should go and read this book right now. It is, of course, something of a downer–there’s always a certain tragedy accompanying defeat in a civil war / war of independence (except for the American Civil War, don’t get me started), and this novel provides both that, and the tragedy common to civilians in all wars, in spades. Still, you should read this book, now. It was recommended to me by the same friend who recommended The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, last time’s winner, so maybe he’s onto something.
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Rick Atkinson
These shouldn’t really be subject to a joint review, seeing as they cover different subjects, but they’re both military/political history and I read them sequentially** so this is as close of an opportunity as I’m ever going to get so here goes. The Sleepwalkers covers the political, military, economic, and diplomatic situation in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century leading up to the start of the First World War. I saw it recommended (again, somewhere online–no doubt as part of a 100-year retrospective) as a thorough exploration of the roots of the war; its thesis is that there is no single person, nation, or alliance accountable for the war but that the nations of Europe stumbled–or rather, sleepwalked–into it. I only got through about half of it before someone put a hold on it and I had to return it to the library, but it certainly seemed to do a pretty good job setting up that claim; incidentally, I now know more about the economy and politics of Serbia in 1910 than I really wanted to (it’s a rather academic book). I do intend to finish it, someday.
The Guns at Last Light, by contrast, is definitely a popular history. There’s a lot more of “…he must have thought, as he gazed out over the ____ [assembled troops, windswept plain, etc]” and general America-(and-Britain)-is-great-this-is-the-good-war kind of stuff. Nevertheless it does provide a view from the level of both the commanders (mostly Eisenhower, decent amount of Montgomery, and so on) and the common soldier. (It is also a much quicker read than The Sleepwalkers.) If you’re interested in military history–or think you might be–then definitely check out Rick Atkinson, starting with “An Army at Dawn”. (As an aside: Atkinson is much, much better than Stephen E. Ambrose–Ambrose might as well have titled his books “Hoo-rah”, so just watch HBO’s Band of Brothers (which I do recommend) instead.)
* “My list” is a bit of web software I put together for fun. The source is available here, though there’s probably a bit of work to do before others can easily set it up for themselves. (And something like Goodreads is probably better, though I prefer to keep my data to myself.)
** I did read them sequentially, but in parallel with the fiction on this list. Generally I have an “upstairs book” (fiction, bedside) and a “downstairs book” (nonfiction, morning/weekend) going simultaneously. More information than you wanted, but that’s what blogs are for, right? (My downstairs book will soon again be Bertrand Russell, for the amusement of those who follow me on twitter.)