Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March reading

Three books read to this point in March: Rebel Yell by Alice Randall, The Possessed by Elif Batuman and The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell. And I'll confess that Cornwell's yarn is my favorite.

The Burning Land is the fifth book in Cornwell's Saxon series. Think of Robert E. Howard's Conan books only with impeccable historical research, superb pacing and unrivaled story-telling ability. Cornwell is the foremost practitioner of the historical novel, assuming the mantle from the late Patrick O'Brian.

The Saxon series features Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a fearless fighter and brilliant tactician. Uhtred straddles two worlds. He identifies closely with the Danes, brave pagan warriors, yet he is a reluctant tool of the Christian king, Alfred of Wessex.

Like Uhtred, Cornwell's novels straddle two worlds -- they are literate works that manage to be hugely entertaining.

How I wish Rebel Yell had contained even some of that entertainment value found in The Burning Land. I wanted to like this book. I didn't. At times, the writing had an annoying staccato feel to it and the book seems to have been written in code.

The book is the story of Abel Jones Jr. When we first meet Abel, he is a child, in a car with his mother and father, en route to the funeral of one of the young girls murdered in the infamous Birmingham church bombing. Pages later, in his second appearance, Abel is an adult, married to a white woman, dining and then dying in the Rebel Yell, a dinner theater reenacting Confederate battles.

Through reminiscences by Abel's first wife and a few friends, we review Abel's life as he progresses from the child of a black civil rights activist in Memphis to a spy for the CIA to minor figure in the Pentagon, where he has a hand in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Rebel Yell falls far short of its promise as a novel that will illuminate the fears and desires and hopes of black Americans growing up in the Civil Rights era.

The Possessed is subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them."

I've been in Russian twice; once for three weeks and a second time for two weeks. Each time, prior to my departure, I read works of Russian literature -- Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol. That gives me some grounding for understanding The Possessed, but only a little.

Batuman was a graduate student studying Russian literature. Her understanding of these works is profoundly deeper than mine. The result is that, at times, I am somewhat at sea when reading The Possessed. But only sometimes, because what makes this book so entertaining is Batuman's great eye for detail and her inherent sense of the comic. These qualities drive the success of The Possessed and guarantee that Batuman's writing career will be long and profitable.

And the cover illustration by Roz Chast is worth the price of admission alone.

1 comment:

  1. "Think of Robert E. Howard's Conan books only with impeccable historical research, superb pacing and unrivaled story-telling ability."

    Are you saying Howard doesn't have those things? I can understand the historical research failings (if only because he was writing in the 1930s, and was about as good as his contemporaries Mundy and Lamb were), but superb pacing and story-telling ability are some of the things Howard's most celebrated for.