Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mitchell Zuckoff, Frozen in Time

During the early days of World War II, Greenland, that great frozen island of the North Atlantic, was of strategic importance as a stopping point for trans-Atlantic flights and as an indicator of the weather destined for Europe. But while it important, it was (and is) a treacherous landscape, especially for pilots, as "milky" conditions created by cloudy skies, unbroken white landscape, and blustery blowing snow cause paralyzing disorientation. And in 1942, that is exactly what happened. First a C-53 crashed over Greenland in the milk. Shortly thereafter, a B-17 in the midst of its journey to Europe to enter the war was sidetracked and tasked with finding the wreckage and locating any survivors. Loaded with its ferrying crew and a few volunteer spotters, the bomber goes down and becomes a second wreckage on the ice. The fuselage is torn in two, but the crew all survive, and thus begins their ordeal. They are eventually located, and another B-17, at great peril to itself, begins resupply flights as often as the weather allows. But even though their location is known, they are unreachable. Dogsled teams attempt the journey but are turned back by weather, as are rescuers on motorsleds. Their ordeal stretches through months of arctic winter. A bold rescue plan is hatched by a Coast Guard vessel off of the coast. The crew of their Grumman Duck (a small float aircraft) volunteers to attempt a belly-down landing on the snow and ice of Greenland to pick up the men. Though they make it successfully once, they then become the third wreck on Greenland that fateful winter. The harrowing winter of the men on the ice continues, and hopes are dim for a rescue.

In Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff intertwines the fateful tale of the men on the ice and the heroic attempts at their rescue with the modern-day tale of efforts to organize and carry out a search for the lost planes, and especially the Grumman Duck, which still holds the remains of its three occupants. Both stories make for adventurous reading. The loneliness, hopelessness, and despair are matched by heroism, innovation, and perseverance. It's the historical tale that especially shines (the modern-day search is interesting but less compelling). Zuckoff opens an interesting chapter in history and a fascinating location on the globe.

Thanks to the publisher and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Jim Gavin, Middle Men

In this outstanding collection of short stories, Jim Gavin brings to life an array of men (and a few supporting women as well) who are struggling to find their way through life. The central characters range from a high-school basketball player to a plumbing-products representative on the verge of retirement, though his main focus is on men in their late twenties and early thirties. In we are given a window in to the lives of each, their hopes and dreams, as well their struggles. The composite picture that emerges presents plenty of futility and listlessness, though it isn't completely without hope. These stories provide an insightful portrait of life that is coming to typify a generation, though it certainly isn't restricted to today's twenties and thirties. Gavin also wrestles with the question of role models and influences. I think the question of what it means to be a man in today's Western culture is an essential one. I too have lived the listlessness of a uncertain future and no clear plan, and these characters certainly ring true to that. But this is an even bigger issue for me as a father to three young boys. So savor these stories, and wrestle with these questions. We must.

Thanks to the publisher and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jeff Shaara, A Blaze of Glory

In this latest book, Shaara returns to his roots, in a sense, with a new novel (the first in a promised triology) on the Civil War. He cut his teeth (and gained his reputation) with Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, a prequil and then a follow up to his father's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Killer Angels (the novel on which the film Gettysburg was based). In this new Civil War trilogy, Shaara is looking to the battles in the West, starting with this account of the battle of Shiloh. These battles are important for numerous reasons, from their importance in determining the war to their sheer size and scope to the people they shaped. Numerous characters well known for their roles later in the War emerge here, such as Sherman and Grant in the North and Forrest and Beauregard in the South. But, especially with Shiloh, the battle itself makes quite a tale.

In the early days of the war, after a few skirmishes in the eastern theater of the war, and after some initial Union success at Forts Henry and Donelson, the horrific potential of the war was only a faint shadow. Both armies seemed to regard their opponents as unworthy foes, questioning their resolve and character and expecting the other side to simply fold if pressed hard enough. But a major conflict like Shiloh would certainly begin to change that. An increasing number of Confederate troops were amassing in Corinth, just across the Tennessee border in Mississippi, whole Union troops were congregating near Savannah, Tennessee, occupying the land recently vacated by the retreating confederates. Clearly, a showdown was inevitable, but its precise location and character were not quite clear. Shaara recounts the somewhat audacious plan by Confederate General Johnston to attack the waiting Union camps, a plan that seems to have been doomed to failure as it unfolds. But a great battle ensues.

As with his other works, Shaara does a masterful job of tracking the movements and decisions of generals, orienting readers to the big picture and the important decisions being made on both sides, and also giving a widow into the lives of some of the key players in the Civil War. But he couples this with the on-the-ground experience of soldiers on both sides, recounting experiences of men living in the camps, fighting on the lines, and experiencing the horror, the fear, the rage, and the aftermath of the fighting itself. This two-pronged approach gives life to the book. He likewise captures the confusion of battle, the terror it engenders, and courage of soldiers, both infantrymen and generals alike, to carry on in such terrible conditions.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and the story of this important early battle. The ebb and flow of momentum, the command decisions on both sides, and the experiences of the men who lived it come together to make this a great story as well as a fascinating way to understand better the shape of this decisive American conflict. There is no doubt it also gives material for reflection, on the nature of war and its horrors, on the way we think about (and often assume the worst about) our enemies, and how God relates to battle. Though it starts a little slow, this book is a great story, and takes readers along on an entertaining and informative look at the Battle of Shiloh.

Thanks to the publisher and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy.

Monday, April 09, 2012

John Grisham, Calico Joe

Calico Joe is a baseball book, but more than that it is a story. It is just what you would expect from Grisham. The book revolves around a bean ball. Joe Castle was a young phenom on a meteoric rise in the big leagues. His explosion onto the scene is historic, he just keeps getting hits. Warren Tracey is a pitcher who is barely hanging on in the big show. He has just enough success to keep him pitching for the Mets, but just barely. The only way he is distinguished is by leading the league in hit batsmen. In the amazing summer of 1973, their paths seemed destined to cross, and they did.

Paul is Warren's son. Their relationship is rocky at best, and now, many years after Warren has left the family far behind, Paul remembers back to that fateful summer, back to the events that changed all of their lives. He was there on that day. And he never played baseball again.

This is a story about baseball, and about some of the unwritten rules that sometimes govern the game. But more than that it is a story of two men whose lives were forever changed. It is a quick read, and is a tale well told. As with many of his books, it is a study in human character, in this case, a look at self-destructive tendencies, but also forgiveness and resolution. It's not a legal thriller, but is in line with some of his other little character-stories such as Playing for Pizza or Bleachers. It's a great book to pick up as baseball season gets going for another summer.

Thanks to the publisher and Amazon Vine for the review copy.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Jim Abbott and Tim Brown, Imperfect

Jim Abbott is an improbable hero. He overcame a handicap (being born without a right hand) to play professional baseball at the highest level. This book is his story. And it is a good one. This is so for a few reasons. The book gives an inside perspective on what it is like to grow up being "different," and especially being noticeably so. Jim was used to the stares, the comments, the questions, the doubts. In many ways this facet of the book, hearing what his experiences were like throughout his life (and this aspect of his experience stretches from his first awareness of his difference right up to the present), provides the most insight. For it serves to remind readers to treat other people as people. Noticeable differences may arouse curiosity or provide easy fodder for conversation, but that doesn't mean the other person wants to be defined by them. A second facet of the book that caught my interest was the idea of pursuing a passion and finding a place. Jim found baseball as his way to prove his sameness. Even with his missing hand, baseball was the great leveler. His performance dictated how people perceived him. It also helped him to shape his identity apart from his hand. Now you or I may not have the same issues with disabilities to overcome, but we all need to pursue a passion. This doesn't necessarily mean being defined by our jobs, but it does mean seeking a place, a fit, a calling. And in Jim Abbott's case, this calling may bring with it unexpected things, such as the role he played in the lives of countless disabled children who looked to his success as an inspiration to pursue their own. Jim persistently dedicated time to meeting kids and families touched by disability, even amid the relentless schedule of professional baseball, because he realized that even if he wasn't trying to be a role model or achieve on behalf of others, he was.

The book is the intertwining of this story, of baseball and of life. Abbott and Brown alternate between an inning-by-inning account of Abbott's crowning achievement on the baseball field, a no-hitter for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, with this tale of discouragement, aspiration, and achievement. It makes for a good baseball story, and it has insights to lend, even to those with no interest in that particular game.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine program and Ballantine Books for the review copy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

P. D. James, Devices and Desires

This twenty-year-old novel proves once again that P. D. James is truly a master of the mystery genre. In this installment of the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series, her protagonist finds himself on England's sparsely populated headlands to attend to matters of his deceased aunt's estate. Meanwhile England's latest serial killer is on the loose. And his latest victim is an employee at the near-by nuclear power plant that dominates the headland. Though Dalgliesh is off-duty while out in the country, his proximity to events, and his discovery of what seems like the latest victim while walking along the beach involves him in the mysterious events.

This book, like all of James's mysteries, is filled with well-developed characters that give verisimilitude to her stories, that give real humanity to the victims, to those touched by the killings, and even to the suspects. This serves both to give depth to the narrative and to heighten the tension of the mystery, as it makes suspects more interesting but also keeps you guessing as to who the real perpetrator may be. Devices and Desires also contains some great dialogue that probes deeper issues, such as the detective's relationship to death, or the possible continuing relevance of the category of sin, or the possibility of justice in a world full of twisted devices and desires that enmesh our lives.

This mystery does not disappoint. It is well written, thoughtfull, and entertaining, and comes to a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

I think this book is an absolute literary triumph. In her latest novel, the venerable P. D. James weds her immense skill in crafting character-driven mysteries with her own passion for Jane Austen. She picks up six years after Pride and Prejudice leaves off (spoiler alert for those of you who haven't yet gotten to that classic--which you should, by the way; you will here learn how some of the relationships resolve in that earlier work), focusing on the home of Elizabeth and Darcy. But tragedy strikes on the eve of Pemberley's grand ball, and Elizabeth's brother-in-law Wickham is the suspect. By many twists and turns, we are brought back into the somewhat twisted world of these characters that Jane Austen formed, this time in search of a killer.

I was amazed at how well James is able to pick up the story from Pride and Prejudice. She deftly works her story in a way that seems so natural it was often hard to recall as I was reading whether events she referred to were in her work or in Austen's original. And I think she picked up on the perfect "seam" from P&P, with the tenuous entrance of Wickham into the Bennet family with all of the past baggage and conflict that he brought to that first story but which was left unresolved at the end. After reading Death Comes to Pemberley, it almost feels as if P&P is incomplete without James's masterful extension. This homage fit seamlessly with the original for me, and I loved it.

Friday, December 23, 2011

John Sanford, Wicked Prey

Lucas Davenport is a complex hero. And Wicked Prey is another in Sanford's series centered around this Minnesota detective. Also figuring prominently in this book is Lucas's soon-to-be adopted child Letty, whom he came upon in an earlier novel (Naked Prey) in her own tragic situation, and who proves to be a strong, or at least interesting, though maybe somewhat implausible, protagonist as well. The two of them find themselves (mostly without the other's knowledge) caught up in a complex plot surrounding some brutal attacks during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008. Letty has been targeted for retribution by one of Davenport's old foes. But she improbably befriends the hooker who is caught up with the small-time criminal, and thereby weaves herself into an interesting situation. Lucas, meanwhile, is tasked to investigate brutal attacks on two big-time money men who are making off-the-books cash contributions to various political players on behalf of interested parties. This makes for an action-packed adventure for Davenport and his crew, as they chase down the leads and all the while try to figure out why the attackers seem to be hanging around. Is some bigger job in the offing?

This book moves at an almost frantic pace that carries the reader along into a world of violence, dirty politics (on both sides of the aisle), and jigsaw-like detective work. It is a solid detective novel with a colorful and imperfect hero. Sandford certainly conveys the roughness of his character, and of the underworld he investigates, and while this does lend some verisimilitude to the book, it is at least worth noting.