John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”

Yes, I’m on a bit of a John le Carre’ kick lately. And again, I found another one of his books that astounds me with its excellent writing and the power of the story. The constant gardener is Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered when she threatens to expose a pharmaceutical company’s lethal drug testing among poor Africans. Justin then embarks on a quest to find the truth. Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is based on a true story – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_experimentation_in_Africa#Meningitis_testing_in_Kano.2C_Nigeria In fact, Mr. le Carre had this to say about whether his book was based on fact: “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

Yes, I like John le Carre’s books. Yes, I think he’s a literary giant. There was a scene towards the end of the book that is a prelude to a key character meeting up with another key character (as you can see, I’m trying hard not to spoil the book for anyone intending to read it). So first, ask yourself: if you were writing a book and the plot called for two key characters to meet, how would you do it? Well, there are a number of ways, but most writers would simply have a note arrive in the mail with a time and a place for a rendezvous. Because obviously, the way the message is delivered and the circumstances and setting behind its delivery are of far less importance than the actual meeting itself. But in Mr. le Carre’s world this is not the case. The setting and circumstances are both extremely important because they reveal character.

And this is why he is a genius. Le Carre’ is not a great writer because his grammar and sentences are more beautiful, or because he works harder at his craft – though all that may be true. Le Carre’ is great because he sees the world through different eyes than the average writer. His people and scenes are truly three dimenional, and you just know deep down in your gut that what he is writing about is true even if you’ve never been a spy or a diplomat yourself. His writing is so rich in meaningful detail and the authentic thoughts of his characters that you are left with the impression that no one could have made this up.

Ernest Hemingway once said words to the effect that when he goes to describe a room, he first describes everything about it. Then when he edits, he removes all the details except the few salient ones that by themselves capture all the other points. Le Carre’s strikes me the same way. His descriptions are not just obligatory literary bus stops until he can get on with the real meat of the story, but the descriptions are as important as the action. They tell something important. And he does the same for his characters. Life is complex and profound and certainly not trivial to the people on life’s stage. Le Carre captures that. Further, you can tell how hard he must work at his craft. Some of his scenes are like a Da Vinci painting with layers and layers of color and detail that perhaps can only be admired by the very astute. Ha! Now in saying this, don’t think I consider myself to be one of the astute ones. But I am grateful that I can appreciate great writing when I see it.

If you want to know the story or the book’s background simply do a google search on the book title and steer your way to the book and movie’s Wikipedia sites.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

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I’d Rather be Swallowed by a Whale – My Review of Moby Dick

Normally, when someone tells me they didn’t appreciate a classic book or a classic work of art, I tell them: “The book (or painting) is an established work of genius that has survived the test of time. The book is not on trial here, but you are. The very soul of our culture is reaching out to you and asking: Are you a deep and thoughtful person, or are you a brainless dodo?” However, when it comes to Melville’s 1851 ‘classic’ Moby Dick, I may have to revise my response. Gads, I didn’t like that book!

I started reading Moby Dick when I was twenty-five. I am now sixty-two and just finished it. And still I found it a tough slog! At twenty-five I whipped and beat myself into an intellectual Bataan Death March to within thirty pages of the end and then let the open book simply fall through my fingers to the floor. I simply couldn’t take it anymore even though the book was supposedly reaching its climax – the revenge of the great white whale, the death of Ahab, and the destruction of the Pequod. But, I eventually persevered on and finished the book on my Kindle just last night.

For those who don’t know, Moby Dick was based on two actual events: the sinking by a whale of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex in 1820 off the coast of South America, and a very angry albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick that was killed in the late 1830s. Apparently, the whale had twenty harpoons stuck in him and attacked many ships in his day. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

“This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool![8]”

I like the way Wikipedia described it. Why couldn’t Melville write that way? Instead, this is how he writes:

“And yet, I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm – frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turn to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it’s like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava.”

I rest my case.

Now, for those of you who who care, here are a few Moby Dick facts you probably didn’t know:
1. Ahab didn’t lose his leg from Moby Dick. He pretends he did, but he really didn’t. Starbuck, his chief mate, knows this, and buried deep, deep in the book is a little exchange between the two that goes like this: “Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick—but it was not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?” Captain Ahab replies, “Who told thee that?”
2. Unlike the Gregory Peck movie, it was not Captain Ahab that got dangled in the harpoon lines around Moby Dick and was carried away to appear later lashed to the great white whale, it was Fedallah, one of the harpooners.
3. And finally, yes, Khan was quoting Ahab in Star Trek Two when he said, “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee…”

Okay, those last were good lines, but not good enough to make me like the book. Still, in fairness, maybe I’m a dodo.

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John le Carre’s “A Delicate Truth”

I just finished reading John le Carre’s latest book A Delicate Truth. What a treat! Le Carre is 81 years old, and he’s not only written his best book in years, but in the process has fanned the coals of hope for my own flickering writing career. I have always admired Mr. le Carre’s writing style. Even in his books that I haven’t particularly enjoyed, the sheer quality of his writing always kept me reading on – intelligent, literary, and as deliciously multi-layered as a Strasbourg ice cream cone, i.e., from the little ice cream parlor on the left side of the street in front of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.

But truth be told, I haven’t especially enjoyed the plot lines of his latest books, namely, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor. There were a variety of reasons: too depressing, too hopeless, too cynical, and in one of his books, Our Kind of Traitor, about the Russian Mafia, too much bad language, And sadly, at times even the writing seemed a little uneven – a little too obtuse. I had reached the conclusion that le Carre was past his prime, still more of a craftsman than all but a few of the current crop of thriller writers, but, dang it all, the man was getting old. And then comes along A Delicate Truth. Okay, le Carre does seem to have lately discovered one of our culture’s more popular swear words – which is annoying – but, I assume he feels this is how his characters would realistically speak – if so, I’d rather have the introspective, cultured, intellectual, well-read George Smiley back. But, oh well, these are the characters he chose to put in his book, and as the author he gets to decide what they say. I will add in his defense though: while the language jarred me in places, at least le Carre was writing an end-to-end realistic book. The authors that really irk me are the ones that have the bad language, thinking this makes the book realistic, while otherwise having the characters say and do the most unrealistic things in defiance of all the laws of man and nature. Le Carre is gritty, real, and authentic from first page to last. Even if you’ve never been set-up and warned-off by a member of the British foreign service, you can read the exchange between Kit and his two deceptively bland bureaucratic interrogators at the end of A Delicate Truth and know Yep, this is how it would be done.

Perhaps one reason the book was so good was that le Carre was back on firm ground again dealing with intrigue and machinations in the corridors of British power as the gears of government grind the innocent to dust. He even said in an interview that the two main characters, Trevor and Kit, were somewhat autobiographical. One interesting point I’ve noticed before is that le Carre despises how the Americans are conducting the war on terror. While I fully sympathize with his frustrations, and there is much to criticize, I wonder what he thinks the alternative is. What would the European heads of state have done? Most likely dithered. Or the Chinese? Think Tibet. Or the Russians? Think Checknya.

After I finished A Delicate Truth, I immediately downloaded le Carre’s The Constant Gardener about drug testing in Africa by global pharmaceuticals. But my wife warned me that it was very sad, so I’m putting off reading it for a while until I recharge emotionally. Instead I picked up a thriller by another very successful NYT best-selling writer. Wow! After reading le Carre it was like going back to ‘See Spot run. See Jane run with Spot.”

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Review of ‘Lair of the Serpent’

a Lair of the Serpent blog tour bannerLair of the Serpent is the third book in a young adult series by Terri Lynn Adams that Life of Pi co-producer Kevin Buxbaum said is ‘destined to become Hollywood’s next major motion picture trilogy.” And these were no idle words. He backed up his opinion by buying the motion picture rights! This is a series that has a real shot at greatness.

I hadn’t read the previous chapters – Tombs of Terror and The Lost Curse – but I still found it easy to pick up the backstory in Lair of the Serpent. The characters’ background and references to past events were interwoven clearly into the current plot without slowing the story down. Lair of the Serpent is the story of three teenage friends from different cultures: Jonathan, a seventeen year old American; Severino, a former member of the Peruvian rebel group Shining Path, and his sister Delia, a beautiful and intrepid young woman for whom Jonathan carries a brightly burning torch.

The story begins in Cambodia where altruistic youths Severino and Delia are serving as medical volunteers in a remote village called Preak Torl. There, Delia is kidnapped, and this immediately plunges the story into the dark and sinister world of human trafficking. Jonathan had previously arranged to fly into Phnom Penh to meet his friends, but instead of a happy reunion and a holiday, he and Severino set out on a quest to rescue Delia.

What happens next is a desperate search through the back alleys and backwashes of the seamier side of Cambodian life. The two boys find adventure, danger, misadventures, and an assortment of surprising allies and devious enemies. Through it all their friendship is tested and tried but never wavers. Friends to the last, through a combination of luck, courage, ingenuity, and sheer perseverance, they edge ever closer to the truth of what happened to Delia and what role she has to play in the Cambodian legend of the serpent and the Naga Mani.

Lair of the Serpent is targeted towards young adults, i.e., teenagers of about seventeen, the age of the story’s protagonists. For this audience, I believe the story hits a bulls-eye. Adams does a marvelous job of getting inside her characters’ psyche. Too many YA TV shows, books, and movies are written by adults who have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. Teenagers are generally not more intelligent, more sophisticated, more confident, and more sexually experienced than the adults around them. They are generally highly emotional and struggling to find their place in an adult world, but capable of loyalty, love, and friendship that burns very brightly though it may not be particularly profound in its expression. Adams knows this and throughout the story, her characters stay true to who they are. They win the day while continuing to be teenagers. They sometimes have to rely on adults. They sometimes have to trust their instincts. They sometimes have no one to rely on but each other.

Another strong point is that the book does not condescend to its young audience. It tackles head-on the scourge of human trafficking. The loss of a loved one, taken, gone, disappeared forever, looms over the entire story. And while the reader is left to imagine all sorts of horrors, those horrors are never explicit. Adams handles it masterfully. It’s clear she’s done her homework on the subject. It’s never sordid and never steps over the line, but the premise is thought provoking and gut wrenching.

It’s an exciting story, not only in the search for Delia, but also in the real-life and well-researched Cambodian legends Adams brings to life that make the story more than an adventure, but also a mystery – and an educational one at that.

But in the end, Lair of the Serpent is about friendship. It’s about good kids making moral decisions motivated by friendship and love to do their duty to each other no matter what the risk. There was something noble, touching, and poignantly simple in their interactions. In many ways it was an inspirational read.

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A Kindle and a Carol

     I received a Kindle for Christmas. Though an avid reader, I had resisted buying one for years because I thought I could never get used to reading a book off a 6 inch screen. It took me about two minutes from the time I opened the box till the time I was actually downloading books over my home wireless connection. It was incredibly easy to set up, and this made an immediate positive impression. Within a few minutes I was reading and enjoying a book (The Honorable Schoolboy by LeCarre), and after a few hours I can honestly say the strangeness of reading off a small electronic device had all but vanished.  I won’t say I prefer a Kindle ebook over a traditional paper book, but it does have the advantage of being lighter, easier to carry, and, most importantly, capable of downloading almost any book I want anytime I want – and more cheaply than a paper book.   
     One more point: In the past, I had read reviews of the Kindle on Amazon and even some of the positive ones had caused me to think twice about buying one. For example: several reviewers carried on about the occasional flash of the screen that occurs every so often when you are advancing pages, and I thought that this must be a hugely annoying problem. Take my word for it: it is a total non-issue. I can only assume that some reviewers delight in noticing every little nuance of a product.
     But I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of the Kindle. I want to talk about a book. With my Kindle comes the ability to download for free through the Kindle Store many books that have exceeded their copyright and are now in the public domain. Books like Moby Dick, The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and A Christmas Carol by Dickens, for example. If you download the totally free books, my understanding is that they are not Kindle friendly, which means you can’t do searches in them or move around chapters easily. But if you buy the 95 cent version of these books, someone has made the effort to format the books to work smoothly with all the Kindle functions. All of this is a way of saying that I downloaded and read a 95 cent Kindlized version of A Christmas Carol and was profoundly moved by the story. No wonder it still continues to be read (and turned into movies and plays) 168 years after it was written.
     A Christmas Carol was the very first Dickens book that I have ever read. I expected to be charmed but bored by its old, thick, and probably dry writing style. Wow, was I wrong! My initial impression was that it is so well written that it could have been the book that all ‘How to Write’ books were based on. In it could be found almost every advanced writing technique that I had ever studied. It was so sophisticated and yet readable that it made me wonder if the ‘how to’ books were telling the rules of writing or just simply, having studied Dickens, describing the things that Dickens did to weave his magic. His descriptions were imaginative, evocative, and vividly written. His characters were intelligently and intricately carved, so that their emotions and attitudes were plain, consistent, and in many cases, profound. And this entire story was crafted before the invention of the backspace key or even the typewriter!
     But what really impressed me was the overall effect of the story. It was short for a book, but, if anything, it’s brevity added to its power. I was emotionally moved by the story as millions have been moved before me. Most strangely, it captured for me, a person of the 21st century, exactly how I felt about Christmas. How could it have been written over a century and a half before I was born and before the full might of Hollywood and American retail imagery had fully imprinted their Christmas spin on my psyche? I couldn’t help but wonder if Dickens’ picture of Christmas had influenced those creative sources as well.
     My next week’s posting will be on my first serious experience with ‘writer’s block’. I will tell how it happened and how I’m trying to work my way out of it.
Best regards,
Jim
Umhlanga, South Africa
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They Burn Witches Don’t They

The famous conservative pundit and long time host of Firing Line, William F. Buckley, once said words to the effect that the reason we don’t burn witches at the stake anymore is because we no longer believe in witches – not because we are better people. I have to agree. Which leads me to a few comments on Mitt Romney’s run for the U.S. presidency. In some circles, Mr. Romney is taking a fair amount of flack for being a Mormon. Some of the attacks are subtle – such as suggestions that good Americans should only vote for ‘true’ Christians. But other attacks are blatant appeals to religious intolerance. How strange for this to be happening in America.  
Many people immigrated to America in the 16 and 17 hundreds to escape religious intolerance and outright persecution in Europe. The Thirty Years’ war between the Protestants and the Catholics was fought mainly in Germany from 1618 to 1648 and took the lives of approximately 8 million people. This was, of course, only a few decades after the French Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598 where an estimated 3 million were killed. No wonder so many people risked life and limb to come to that savage new continent called ‘America.’
I wonder what those early pioneers would think if they could see the current presidential race. I suspect they would be shaking their heads in dismay to see that same old prejudice at play – the one they voted against with their feet by making the long and dangerous journey to America.
As a digression, let me say that I’ve recently read two Michael Connolly thrillers:  The Lincoln Lawyer and The Fifth Witness, both about ace defense lawyer Mickey Haller. Dang, they were good. The Lincoln Lawyer was made into a very good movie with Matthew McConaughey – in fact, the movie screenplay changed the plot around a little at the end and did a good job of it – in my opinion. The Fifth Witness had some great courtroom scenes. I highly recommend both – for mature readers.
In my next post, I will give a little more information about my sequel to Einstein’s Trunk. Have I mentioned before that I’ve changed the title and am now calling it “A Thousand Suns.” I’ll tell you why next week.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
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Pearls from Mt. Olympus

     Several years ago Russell Crowe starred as Jack Aubrey in a movie adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” – a seafaring saga set during the Napoleonic wars. When I first saw the movie I didn’t like it. Russell Crowe looked out of shape and seemed to be breezing through the part as if his mind were only half involved. The movie was competently done, but I just couldn’t shake the negative impression I had of Russell Crowe’s performance. Well, I saw the movie again two weeks ago and realized I was a complete idiot and that Russell Crowe and the rest of the cast had nailed their parts, and the movie itself was an excellent screenplay superimposed over a meticulously researched recreation of life on a British frigate. What changed?
     Well, for one thing, just before I saw the movie for the second time, I had just finished reading the first two books in O’Brian’s series, Master and Commander and Post Captain, and now had a really good feel for the character of Jack Aubrey and the subtleties of life in the British navy. So when I saw the movie again, I realized Crowe was faithfully rendering the character – masterfully, in fact – and that Peter Weir, the director, had not lost any of his magic or attention to detail since he directed the excellent Harrison Ford movie Witness some eighteen years earlier.
     But what was interesting to me was that the movie itself hadn’t changed, but my ability to appreciate it had. My ignorance had caused me to misunderstand and under-appreciate a really sterling work. Also, quite interestingly, I realize now that my original opinion of the movie had been influenced by a negative article I had read about Russell Crowe the week before. Ha! Aren’t we human beings interesting characters! We think our opinions are more than that – we think they are all pearls of pure wisdom handed down from Mt. Olympus. Little do we realize how many of our supposed objective opinions are shaped by ignorance and prejudice. 
     This same principle holds true for book reviews. Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series has been called by the NYT book reviewer, ‘the best historical novels every written.’ And if you go to Amazon you will find hundreds of people who wholeheartedly agree. And yet you will also find a few who criticize the series as boring, too nautical, and plotless. It makes you wonder how many of those critics actually made the effort to appreciate O’Brian’s genius. So the learning principle for me is that whenever you give your negative opinion on the hard work of another, you should think twice – after all, you might be the problem.         
    My next posting will be on what makes a good book title. 
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
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A Rose by any other author would not read so sweet

Anyone following my blog surely knows that I greatly admire the writing style of Martin Cruz Smith, the author of Gorky Park and the subsequent series of books about Arkady Renko, the Moscow police detective. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading a less well known creation of Smith’s called Rose. This was a story of a British mining engineer recalled from Africa by his capitalist employer to find his daughter’s missing fiance in a coal mining town in 19th century England. While doing so, the engineer uncovers several intrigues and falls in love with a mine worker named Rose.  
The book is gritty – you can feel the coal dust in the air and the vapor of darkness that covered the landscape from the constantly running furnaces powering the coal mine’s operations. Did you know that in those mile deep mines in Lancashire county that fresh air was circulated throughout the miles of tunnels by a single huge, roaring furnace at the bottom of the mine fed with 60 tons of coal 24 hours per day, 365 days per year? The fumes were vented through a chimney that ran to the surface but the almost volcanic heat of the furnace sucked oxygen from the surface deep into the bowels of the mine. If the furnace ever went out, everyone in the mine would suffocate.
Another curious feature was the elevator that ran from the surface down to the heart of the mine over a mile below. It dropped at a speed of 40 miles per hour and had no automatic braking system. The elevator was controlled by a man called a ‘winder’ who sat above ground watching the dials indicating the elevator’s progress and manually braked the elevator. This was his single job the entire day. If his mind wandered and he forgot to brake at the right time, the elevator with 30 men in it would crash at the bottom killing all. Same thing coming up. The elevator, if not braked, would come flying out of its shaft destroying its support beams and then plunge down again out of control to the bottom of the mine with all aboard. The winder worked in a shack by himself completely undisturbed. His concentration had to be absolute. It was said that the foremen knew to only put illiterate men in that job, because literate men could not concentrate all day on the dials.  
The work in the mines was incredibly dangerous. Thousands died (they really did have canaries in the mine to warn of bad air) and yet thousands more were eager to take their place because it was a job. And men needed jobs to support their families and for their own self respect. If you focused on the living conditions in the mines, Rose was a sad story of desperate, hard-scrabble lives held in virtual bondage by capitalist owners who never thought of themselves as evil but rather as clever businessmen trying to maximize the value of their capital. After all, they didn’t force the men to take these jobs – they could quit at any time. After I read Rose I watched a documentary on BBC on British coal mines in the early 1900’s (conditions hadn’t changed much since the 1800’s) and it told of one mining disaster that took the lives of almost 200 men and the owner didn’t pay the widows the salary of their husbands for the day they died – after all, they hadn’t finished their shift.
But in the end, Rose wasn’t a sad story. Somehow love always manages to trump attempts to snuff out the human spirit. In the end, the title character tells the protagonist that if he takes her with him back to Africa ‘I will love ya till my dying breath’(or words to that effect). Rose – an altogether uplifting and informative historical novel with something to say about the effects of unregulated capitalism on the lives of average people.
My next blog post will be a brief discussion of how South Africa fits into my future writing plans.  
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
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The ‘Service’ of Writing Book Reviews

Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading several book reviews on Einstein’s Trunk, and I wanted to call attention to one book review service that I found particularly interesting and constructive. It’s called Sqeaky Clean Reads and it can be found at:  http://www.squeakycleanreads.com/ 

This website is run by a group of ladies who operate under the motto ‘Movies have ratings, why not books.’  Here is their modus operandi:  They read and review a book and, at least from the reviews I’ve read, spend more time and detail on the book’s good points than on its weaknesses – yet still manage to tactfully and respectfully point out a book’s areas for improvement. They then rate the book as to profanity, violence, sexual content, maturity of theme, and appropriate age-group. The net result is that they provide a service to authors as well as to readers.

Most people are generally sensitive about their work. But most authors need – indeed crave –  honest feedback from people they trust. If a book reviewer makes an honest effort to see a book’s good points, the author will most likely be open to the constructive criticisms as well – it’s just human nature – and perhaps write a better book next time. 

My next post will be my observations in regards ‘writing style’ in thrillers.  

Jim

Zurich

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