The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson & Martin Dugard

I had high hopes for this book.  A nonfiction account of one of history’s most intriguing characters written by one of the most popular authors of crime and suspense fiction…it seemed like a sure thing.  Unfortunately, I’ve rarely been so disappointed in a book.

There are three nonfiction stories being told simultaneously in the book.  First, Patterson writes about his excitement while planning and researching the subject with co-author Martin Dugard.  Second is the story of Howard Carter, the British Egyptologist who discovered the 3,000 year-old, long-lost tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 after years of searching.  Third is the story of King Tut himself and the events leading up to his supposed murder when he was only 19 years old. 

All three storylines are interesting and woven together well.  But the problem I had with the book is one that often comes up for me when reading books by authors like Patterson or Baldacci, whose prolificacy sometimes seems to come at the expense of quality writing.  In other words, I really feel like he phoned this one in.  The language was simple, the text was printed in large font and most chapters were about a page and a half long occasionally even breaking up conversations, which was very disruptive.  It felt a little like reading a report written by a middle schooler who was trying to use fluff-up tricks to make the report long enough.  And unfortunately, I can’t even recommend it for young readers, because while the reading level is certainly juvenile enough, the book contains one episode of violent sexuality that keeps it firmly on the adult shelf.

Also, I’m not sure exactly why this book is considered nonfiction rather than historic fiction.  Patterson makes sure to explain that he is meticulous about his research and includes known facts and generally accepted suppositions whenever possible, but the Tut portion of the story reads so much like fiction, including events and conversations that are impossible to know for certain that I think it should be considered fiction.

If you want a quick lesson on King Tut or Howard Carter I’d suggest skipping this book and just hitting wikipedia for the same facts and a lot less fluff.

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Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 12:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

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The Great Influenza is “The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” i.e. the Spanish Influenza, which killed as many as 100 million people worldwide over a period of 24 weeks in 1918 and 1919 during the height of World War I.

This book is indeed epic in scope and it took me quite a while to get through it.  That wasn’t because it was tedious or boring, but only because of the massive amount of information it contains.  It’s not a book to be consumed quickly, but must be digested in small amounts, bit by bit.  Always fascinating and immensely educational, The Great Influenza is two parts history lesson and one part crash-course in bacteriology.  Sandwiched between biographies of some of the most influential scientific researchers during an exciting period of world-wide medical enlightenment is a detailed account of the epidemic’s destructive, murderous path from its probable origin point in rural Kansas to army cantonments throughout the country and then with American soldiers to France, England and on to the rest of the world.

With the current swine flu outbreak it was particularly interesting to learn about the nature of viruses and the influenza virus in particular.  The book offers a detailed layperson understanding of how influenza can be transferred from animals to humans and also how and why some strains are so mild and others so deadly.  It also explains why researchers who were so frantically looking for ways to control the disease in 1918 were having trouble.  They were unable at that time to even identify the pathogen and cutting corners while performing research experiments in an effort to develop an anti-serum more quickly did not help.

Other interesting facts learned from this book:

**Politics played far too great a role in the number of fatalities.  Because of the war, politicians were reluctant to even admit the existence of the epidemic for fear that it would lower morale.  Although local governments in large cities were advised to enforce laws against public meetings, most refused to comply and newspapers did not run warnings or advice until late in the epidemic.

**The misnomer “Spanish Flu” was given to the disease because Spain was the first country to have newspapers running headlines announcing the epidemic.  They were not yet involved in the war and therefore were not censoring their media.

**The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an unusually high percentage of healthy, young people between the ages of 21 and 40, which is typically the age group with the greatest survival rate.  The reason is that this particular strain of influenza was so virulent that the healthiest immune systems would often launch such aggressive attacks that they would essentially destroy the victim’s lungs and/or heart.

**The influenza may have indirectly been responsible for events leading up to the start of World War II.  While in France negotiating peace terms with representatives from Britain, France and Italy, Woodrow Wilson became ill with influenza.  He was bedridden for days, and though he recovered, the illness appeared to have altered his mental capabilities (minor brain damage was later proven to be a common side effect of severe influenza).  He suddenly and inexplicably gave in to all of France’s demands which included many harsh penalties against Germany and set the stage for things to come.  Wilson never fully recovered and for the rest of his term, many presidential decisions were made by his wife and personal physician.

I only wish this book could have contained an afterword addressing the recent H1N1 influenza strain.  It’s possible that information may be added at a later time since I think there was an afterword added regarding the avian flu in an edition published after the version I read.  It would be interesting to know the specifics of the swine flu’s makeup and how it compares to the other epidemics since 1918.  If the 1918 flu is any indication of how things could play out, the mild outbreak that we saw this spring could be followed by a much more severe outbreak this fall.

I highly recommend this book with the warning that it may take a while to get through.  If you’re like me, you may want some nice, easy fiction to read at the same time.

And as a coincidental anecdote, an older gentleman stopped in the store a week ago.  He was from Michigan and was visiting his mother here in Floyd.  Without mentioning that I was reading this book he told me that his mother, who is now in her late 90s, took him to a family graveyard and showed him the row of tombstones which were all marked with dates within the same couple of weeks in 1918 — all victims of the influenza.

The Great Influenza is available at noteBooks in trade papaerback for $16.00.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Women by T.C. Boyle

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I enjoyed Nancy Horan’s historical fiction, Loving Frank, so much that when I saw the latest book by acclaimed author T.C. Boyle, which is also a Frank Lloyd Wright-centric work of historical fiction, I hungrily grabbed it up.  But whereas Loving Frank is the story of only one of the women in Wright’s life, The Women encompasses a much larger period of time and tells not only the story of the architect’s mistress but also of each of his three wives.

A larger-than-life character, Frank Lloyd Wright struggled against social, moral and aesthetic conventions for nearly his entire life.  Plagued by scandal and financial troubles, he refused to deny himself any desire, whether material or feminine in nature.  Ironically, the women in his life brought him both comfort and happiness but were also often at the root of his woes.

An eccentric himself, Wright found himself drawn to other colorful characters.  The Women tells the story of his first wife, Catherine “Kitty” Tobin, with whom he had six children and whom adamantly refused to give him a divorce despite his blatant unfaithfulness; his mistress Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney a spirited feminist who was tragically murdered at his Wisconsin estate, Taliesin; his second wife, Maude Miriam Noel, a melodramatic southern belle, a morphine addict (and at least as portrayed by Boyle, someone who, in my opinion, should have been certified insane and institutionalized); and his third wife Olgivanna Milanoff, “the Dragon Lady” who was a student of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff and who gave Wright another child later in his life.

A remarkable characteristic of the novel is that each of the four women is presented as both a heroine and a villainess, depending on whose portion of the story is being told.  The book is divided into three parts (poor Kitty’s story is rather brief and mingled with Mamah’s and as a result she appears to be Frank’s most pitiable victim).  As each woman’s story is told, she is presented as the sympathetic character and all others are antagonists.  This gives the narrative a complete and somewhat unbiased personality.   

Boyle is a fantastic writer.  The novel is witty, funny, poignant and imaginative.  He uses another character to help tie the narrative together:  Tadashi Sato is a fictional apprentice of Wright who lived and worked at Taliesan from 1932 until the start of World War II.  His introductions and footnotes pepper the novel with additional insights into the genius of America’s most famed architect as well as giving firm dates for certain events and supplying additional historical facts that are interesting, but not necessarily vital to the story.

T.C. Boyle has written eleven novels including The Road to Wellville and The Inner Circle.  He has also published eight collections of short stories.

The Women is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.95.

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

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Bernard Cornwell has written over forty novels, most of them historical in nature.  Perhaps best known are his Sharpe stories, which tell of the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars.  Cornwell has also written series depicting events during the time of King Arthur, 9th-century Anglo-Saxon England and the American Revolution.  His latest novel, Agincourt, is a stand-alone book written about Henry V and the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

The battle of Agincourt (October, 1415) has been featured in numerous works of fiction (it is the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V), has been the subject of extensive historical research and analysis and remains a source of pride for the English to this day.  The victory is remarkable because the English army was greatly outnumbered by the French (the exact numbers are a source of debate, but Cornwell uses the generally accepted 5,900 English v. 30,000 French).  It is also noteworthy due to the number of casualties (very few English and a significant number of French) as well as the number of French lords who were either killed or captured.  The English army had just completed a month-long seige of the seaside town of Harfleur, had traveled over 250 miles by foot and were suffering from both hunger and dysentery.  Credit for the victory is given in large part to the English archers.  About 5,000 of England’s 5,900 were commoners wielding longbows.  There were other factors involved, but I’ll refrain from mentioning them for anyone unfamiliar with the history and wanting to read the book.

The fiction portions of the book are only average.  The main character, Thomas Hook, is an English archer who has been outlawed for hitting a priest.  He travels to France and finds himself fighting for the Duke of Burgundy against the French king in Soissons.  During the battle he manages to save a French novice and narrowly escapes the traitorous massacre thanks to the voices in his head (he later decides the voices are Saints Crispin and Crispinian…the significance appears later).  Eventually Hook and the novice, Melisande, make their way back to England and Hook finds a place under Sir John Cornwaille’s command in King Henry’s army as Henry prepares to invade France.  Hook’s point of view serves as a familiar vehicle for the historical action.  The fictional characters move the story forward and make slow parts more engaging.  Cornwell is also very good at writing humor into fiction.  The wise cracks were unexpected but enjoyable.

I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the descriptions of the seige engines and the tactics of war.  The violence seemed a bit gratuitous (there were an awful lot of eyeballs getting popped and sliced) though I guess that’s probably accurate.  I would recommend Agincourt for its great descriptions of 15th century armor, weaponry and tactics. (Cannons were beginning to play a major role in battles during this time, and their volatile unpredictability makes for some grisly situations.)

Agincourt is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.99

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

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As the fourth person in the family to read this novel I gave this one a 4 out of 6 on the “Christmas Bag” scale.  The comments of the previous readers (my parents and my husband) were mixed and rather lukewarm so I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did.  It’s always nice to be surprised.

Coal Black Horse is the story of Robey Childs, a fourteen year-old boy who lives with his mother on their small farm in the West Virginia mountains during the time of the American Civil War.  His father has been away fighting for many months.  His mother has a premonition of his father’s death and sends Robey, her only child, to bring her husband home before he can be harmed.  The novel follows Robey as he sets out as an innocent boy and tells how he is forced to mature quickly as he learns difficult lessons about human nature, death and the horrors of war.  Through a stroke of luck or fate, he acquires a magnificent coal black horse which proves a great source of strength throughout his journey as he searches for his father.

Robey’s search takes him to Gettysburg, just a day or two after the battle there and the descriptions of the battlefield are really amazing…I don’t recall having read anything of this era that compares.  Olmstead seems intent on portraying the scenes of war as grisly and macabre, but also as beautifully human.  He refrains from romanticizing, but acknowledges that for many men and boys, war was the greatest, most magnificent adventure.  In addition to the factual descriptions of the instruments of war (weapons, soldiers and officers), attention is given to the effects of war on the people around the destruction.  The scavengers, extortionists, deserters, bereaved, bystanders and tourists…all are included to complete the portrait of a country gripped by anger and fear.  It’s the rare moments of compassion within the novel that give both Robey and reader hope that humanity will survive and remember how to forgive, love and trust.   

I have heard criticisms that the descriptions in the book are tedious and occasionally unnecessary.  I did not find that to be the case at all.  Once I was engaged in the story, which didn’t take long, the descriptions were very compelling, always relevant and really, the spirit of the book that carried the plot from one drama to the next.  Olmstead writes with a truth and poignancy that brings the reader as close to the war-ravaged people as is possible.

Coal Black Horse is a winner of the Heartland Literary Prize.  Robert Olmstead is the author of five previous books (River Dogs, Soft Water, A Trail of Heart’s Blood Wherever We Go, America By Land and Stay Here With Me.  He has hinted at a sequel to Coal Black Horse.  The trade paperback edition, which is available at noteBooks for $13.95 includes an interview with the author and a reader’s guide.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

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This past Christmas my mother decided to try something new.  She bought thirteen books from her bookstore, put them all in a bag and on Christmas day, after presents were all opened, she passed the bag around and told everyone to pick a book.  We could choose whichever book we wanted, it didn’t really matter since theoretically we’ll each end up reading all of them anyway.  Once we’re done with a book we are supposed to write a quick note in the back about what we thought and give it a 1-6 rating.  (1-6 so that someone can’t be lame and just rate a 3, not saying if they liked it or not.)  Then you’re supposed to trade with someone or see what’s been returned to the bag and pick another book.  The hope is that everyone will read most (if not all) of the books and next year at the Thanksgiving dinner table we’ll be able to sit around and talk about them.  It seems that she did a pretty good job putting together a varied collection and I thought I’d include those titles as I read them over the next few months.  One of the books I’ve already read and reviewed — Three Cups of Tea — and in my notation in the back I gave it a rating of 5.  Loving Frank was the first book I pulled out of the bag and I gave it a score of 4.5.

Loving Frank is a work of historical fiction based upon the true facts of the love affair between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Martha (Mamah) Borthwick Cheney in the early 1900s told from Mamah’s point of view. 

Succinctly:  I loved the book.  It pushed all of the right buttons for me.  It was a detailed and interesting period piece, it was about architectural history and it was a good love story (passionate and compelling but not mushy).  I credit my enjoyment of the book largely to Horan’s ability to build a complete framework of historic facts around which to flesh out her story.  Whenever possible she used factual details, even including excerpts from real letters, newspaper articles and lectures.  The interview with the author at the end of the book goes into greater depth regarding her research and sources and her excitement at discovering the existence of letters written by Mamah Borthwick to her friend and colleague, Ellen Key, essentially giving Mamah a true voice and personality.

A main theme in the novel is the Woman Movement (as it was then called).  Mamah is an active supporter of the movement, even prior to the starting point of the novel.  We see how her views of gender equality effect her decision to leave her family to be with Frank.  Through the years she challenges and modifies her own ideas regarding the roles of women.  As a character, Mamah changes and becomes more fulfilled, though the fulfilment comes at a price.

The novel is perfectly written.  I couldn’t put it down.  (Though I guess it’s not the type of book that would usually be considered a page-turner.)  Horan’s early 20th century world is so textured and artistically visceral that it’s very easy to become immersed.  I certainly hope this will not be Horan’s last. 

And then there’s the ending…

If you have any intention of reading this book and do not yet know the facts surrounding this portion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life I’d strongly discourage you from doing any research about it until afterward so that the ending can be just as tragic and surprising as it likely was when it actually occurred in 1914.  The ending definitely shocked me, and again, I give credit to Horan’s storytelling.  She refrained from overindulging in foreshadowing as authors are often wont to do.  It was a complete surprise.

Published in: on February 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm  Comments (1)  
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Pillars of the Earth / World Without End by Ken Follett

I’m a big fan of the epic fantasy genre but I never realized how similar fantasy novels are to historic fiction.  Take away the elves, dwarves and impending magical catastrophes, add a loosely factual historical framework and George R. R. Martin becomes Ken Follett.  The novels of both authors are rife with political intrigue, multiple complex characters and storylines, blushingly graphic sexual content and really mean bad guys.  They’re satisfyingly obese tomes that can be week-long companions until closed for the final time with a contented sigh.

For that reason, and also for my love of English history, I thoroughly enjoyed both Pillars of the Earth (written in 1989) and World Without End (the sequel, written 18 years later in 2007).  It’s true that the books could be read in either order since the stories take place centuries apart, but I’d recommend reading Pillars first because there are a few references to the first in the second which will make more sense read in that order.

Both novels take place primarily in the town of Kingsbridge, England.  Pillars of the Earth is set in the 1100s during the time period known as “The Anarchy” between the sinking of the White Ship and murder of Thomas Becket.  The book tells the story of the newly elected Prior, Phillip, and the master builder, Tom, who is hired to build a new cathedral after a fire claims the old building.  Tom’s stepson, Jack, continues the project incorporating the new gothic styles he discovers while in France.  Prior Phillip and struggling wool merchant, Aliena, doggedly pursue their goals while villians Bishop Waleran and Earl William connive against them.  The story spans many years and readers follow entire lifespans of characters and their children.  The characters and their individual stories are fictional, of course, but the intricate details of the Catholic church’s power, the English feudal system and the incredible process of architectural design and execution are factual and incredibly interesting.

In World Without End, Kingsbridge has a new prior, an aging cathedral, a growing town and new heroes and villians in the 1300s during the start of the Hundred Years War.  One of the biggest differences in the two novels is that Follett supports the fiction more substantially with facts and actual political events in World Without End.  Also, where architecture and the building process were the focus of the first novel, a large part of the second novel tells of the plague sweeping through Europe and revolutionary hospital practices used to try to prevent the spread of the disease.  In both books the disparity between men and women is shocking and there were a few chapters that made me want to stand up and punch the first male I could find in the mouth.  It’s really amazing that such inequality existed, not only between the sexes, but also between classes.  The frustration of poor laborers was palpable when reading the book as they tried again and again to change their lot through hard work, only to be beaten down repeatedly at a lord’s whim.

Ken Follett has written many novels and he’s probably most widely known for his World War II books but I think these two are really singular and I’d recommend them to just about anyone.  I believe Pillars of the Earth remains his bestselling work.

Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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