Books: An Officer and a Spy

April 25, 2015

I was actually looking for a historical mystery by Tessa Harris, a book which I didn’t find on the library’s shelves because (I figured out later) I had not noticed that the catalog identified it as an ebook. But I quickly realized that the shelf did have several historical novels written by Robert Harris.

After looking at the flap copy (a useful term that has eluded me for some time) of a few of his books, I selected An Officer and a Spy. I vaguely remember learning about the Dreyfus Affair in some history class or other, but all I could remember was that it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. I didn’t remember how it turned out (for Dreyfus himself, though I knew he was shown to be innocent) – which made the novel more suspenseful than books based on history generally manage to be.

Unlike many (probably most) historical novels I have read, the main characters are all real people from history. Rather than using historic events as the backdrop for a fictional story, Harris is telling history from the point of view of one of the participants. Naturally he has to use his imagination to flesh out the character of Colonel Picquart, his thoughts and motivations and details of his daily activities.

I was quickly engrossed in the story. Picquart no doubt has some significant moral shortcomings (a long-time affair with a married woman, as well as prejudice toward Germans and Jews), and this review of the novel asserts that Harris has “mildly sanitised” the character of Picquart. But his dedication to his duty and to the pursuit of truth and justice, despite the dangers to his career and possibly his life, make him a heroic character.

Knowing the end of the story (that Dreyfus would be shown to be innocent), the officers involved in the cover-up seem foolish as well as corrupt. But of course cover-ups are as old as human history, and a quick review of recent history shows that they are as prevalent now as ever. Whether the motivation is preservation of personal power and reputation, or keeping in power a political bloc that one believes is truly better for the country, the same justifying excuses are made for (what is eventually seen as) blatant injustice.

Many years ago, I ended up buying The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus by Jean-Denis Bredin because I had forgotten to respond to a book club’s monthly selection. I decided it was, after all, a book worth having, and intended to read it someday. I never have yet, but perhaps now I will.


Books: The Astronaut Wives Club

April 18, 2015

This was our book club’s selection this month, selected in large part because it is light, easy reading. Our previous book, The Sandcastle Girls, was a gripping story but full of tragedy. The Astronaut Wives Club is not devoid of tragedy, primarily the Apollo 1 disaster, but none of the book is deep enough to draw the reader in far enough to feel the grief all that strongly.

Lack of depth is my primary complaint about the book. I want to be drawn into a book, not read it casually as I might a magazine article in the doctor’s waiting room. There are a number of themes that could have been explored more deeply, but apparently Lily Koppel preferred breadth over depth.

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Books: The Sandcastle Girls

April 17, 2015

The Sandcastle Girls was our book club’s selection last month, but I found it difficult, immediately after reading it, to figure out what to say about it. There is so much I could say about the awful tragedy recounted in the book, both at a personal level for characters in the book and for the millions of people affected by the genocide of the Armenian people.

Then again, what is there I could say that would really do justice to the subject? Chris Bohjalian does it far better, bringing to life an ugly chapter of history that has been largely forgotten by most of the world. The stark reality of human suffering is depicted in more grim detail than I might have liked, but the fact that people do such horrible things to one another is reason to tell them, not to ignore them.

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Books: Interrupted Aria

March 20, 2015

Author Beverle Graves Myers combined her love of opera, Italy, history, and mystery in this mystery set in 18th century Venice and featuring an opera singer. Since I have no interest in opera myself, I wouldn’t have gone looking for a book where opera features so prominently.But I did go looking for historical fiction mysteries, and when a more recent title by this author popped up in a list of books at the library, I was interested enough to learn more.

Since I always prefer to start a series at the beginning, I found out that Interrupted Aria was the first of Myers’ Tito Amato mysteries. The reviews at amazon.com were mostly very positive. And the idea of a mystery solved by a castrato opera singer during the Baroque period is so different from the majority of mysteries out there that I was intrigued. It didn’t hurt any that the book was set in Venice, where I spent one day during my travels around Europe during Christmas break the year I spent studying in Spain.

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Books: Calico Joe

February 23, 2015

This is not really the kind of book I was looking for to listen to on my iPod. I used to listen to books on tape while riding my exercise bike, but changing technology has put an end to that. I hadn’t thought I had any interest in strapping an MP3 player to my arm as so many people do at the Y, because I had no interest in listening to music while exercising. (The classical music I enjoy just doesn’t have the driving beat that goes with pushing yourself physically.)

Then recently it occurred to me that these days you can listen to books on an MP3 player. Our library participates in a service that makes more titles available to me than just what is owned by our own library. Surely there must be enough out there to motivate me to get on the bike so I can listen to another installment of a gripping story.

It turns out there is less out there than I had hoped, at least of the sort of story I enjoy. I don’t mind a certain amount of violence in mysteries and thrillers (pretty hard to have a murder mystery without some violence) but not as much as a lot of books have these days. I have no interest in most romances or any vampire stories.

But I like John Grisham’s writing. Most of it, anyway – I did not enjoy A Painted House. The description of Calico Joe indicated it was about baseball, which I’ve had little interest in for the last forty years, but as a young child I loved it. I borrowed books from the library about children playing baseball, I slowed my steps passing the baseball diamond on the way home from the pool if there was a game going on, and I practiced hitting a softball in the back yard (hard to do, though, without anyone to pitch it to me). Besides, there was some mystery involved in the story of Calico Joe.

I did enjoy the book. It is well-written, giving out information bit by bit about what really happened when narrator Paul Tracey was 11 years old in 1973 (when, as it happens, I was also 11 years old). It’s about family, and about behavior that can destroy family relationships. It’s about the need to tell the truth, and about the pride and fear and stubbornness that can make it so hard to let the truth be told.

And of course it’s also about baseball. Enough memories of my onetime love of the sport remain that I enjoyed even the descriptions of games. I knew nothing of most of the players mentioned, but Grisham is a good enough writer that my ignorance didn’t get in the way of appreciating the story.

But it’s not such a gripping novel that I felt compelled to ride my bike just to hear what happened next. I did feel compelled to ride it enough to finish the book before having to “return” it to the library, but I really want to be exercising every day that time permits. The library director tells me that soon many more titles will be available, so I look forward to an expanded selection.


Books: Blackout/All Clear

February 22, 2015

Note: These are two separate books, Blackout and All Clear, but they form one single story in two volumes. There is no attempt to wrap up the story in Blackout in any way – it simply ends with a note that the story will continue in All Clear. So I was very glad that it didn’t take long for the library to get in the second book so I could continue with the story.

I had enjoyed Connie Willis’ previous book involving time travel, Doomsday Book, so I was eager to read more. (As a matter of fact, I had read Doomsday Book in part because I knew there were later books on time travel and I prefer to read books in order.) Blackout and All Clear were published almost twenty years after Doomsday Book, and while a few of the same characters appear, it’s clear that Willis’ writing – while good in the earlier book – has definitely grown and deepened over the years.

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Books: Les Misérables

January 17, 2015

One of the books in my want-to-read-someday list has long by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I had heard and read about the characters and Javert and Jean Valjean, and the theological lessons about law and grace one could see reflected in their very different lives. I wanted to read it for myself.

But it’s such a very long novel. I wondered how I would ever manage to finish it. Then after having read Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame during Christmas break a year ago, I decided that this winter during Christmas break I would tackle Les Misérables.

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