Archive for June, 2010

Cannonball 30: Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen Ambrose

Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full disclosure: I watched the miniseries before I read the book. And maybe that’s a good thing, since I wasn’t picking at the miniseries, comparing it to the book.

As far as I could tell, the miniseries was a pretty faithful adaptation. But I digress. I come to discuss the book, not the miniseries.

The book follows a company of paratroopers through their experiences in Europe during World War II, from their basic training to their drop into Normandy on D-Day through the end of the war. The author follows a few of these men with particular care, and his telling of their personal war stories adds a human element to the historical accounts.

What makes Band of Brothers such a remarkable book is that the stories are true. Men really fought with this sort of bravery. They really endured these harsh, unbearable conditions. These men from all over the United States were largely ordinary, blue-collar men, but they fought with extraordinary courage.

Stephen Ambrose spent years gathering all of the information for this book. He got to know many of the men he wrote about, and heard these stories from their own lips. Despite receiving conflicting accounts regarding certain events (which he discloses), he writes about them as faithfully as he can.

Ambrose writes directly; his language isn’t too flowery, which is appropriate, considering the horror of war. He matter-of-factly describes the grim realities of war and, in doing so, echoes the matter-of-factness that many veterans show when they describe their experiences in the trenches. They don’t see that they’ve done anything particularly heroic. They simply fought hard because it was the right thing to do.

This book is a rare achievement. Kudos to Stephen Ambrose for capturing the remarkable story of Easy Company for generations of Americans to read, enjoy, and remember.

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Cannonball 29: Redwall (Redwall #1) by Brian Jacques

Redwall (Redwall, #1) Redwall by Brian Jacques

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’d always wanted to read the Redwall series when I was a kid, but I somehow never got around to it. I enjoyed fantasy lit, but didn’t really know which series or books were good.

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get sucked into the world of fantasy lit as a kid; I could have ended up wasting my life on D&D instead of enjoying the life of the starving writer (and I do enjoy it, believe it or not). But I’m also glad that I finally got to experience Redwall, and at a time of life when I won’t be as tempted to make it my entire life.

The Redwall series is based at an abbey of mouse monks. The mice of Redwall are kind and gentle souls, friends with most of the other animal citizens of the Mossflower Woods. Our hero, Matthias the Mouse, is a young mouse living in the abbey. He doesn’t see anything remarkable about himself, but when Mossflower and Redwall come under attack by the evil rat Cluny the Scourge, Matthias has to rise to the occasion.

Matthias is determined to find the legendary sword of Martin the Warrior, which legend says is hidden somewhere in the Abbey. With the help of Methuselah, an older, wiser mouse, and the moral support of Cornflower, his love interest, Matthias bands the mice of Redwall and the residents of Mossflower together to stand against Cluny and to protect their peaceful way of life from these oppressors.

The first book in the Redwall series is full of fun and adventure. It’s decently written, and the characters are endearing. It’s easy to see why the other characters in the book love Matthias so much — it’s because he loves them. His love for Redwall and Mossflower are contagious, and his passion to save his home quickly ignites similar passions in his fellow mice, his woodland neighbors, and in the reader.

While it’s a great way to start off the series, Redwall makes a great stand-alone volume, too. It’s nice to see a book in a series that isn’t just treated like a means to an end.

That said, I’m still interested in reading the next book in the series, which I hope to be able to do soon. I liked Jacques’ characters enough to want more of them, even though there was adequate closure in this volume. That’s the sign of a compelling story.

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Cannonball 28: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This review is super-way-overdue, since I read it for the Pajiba Book Club way back at the end of March. But I’ve gotta write the review in order for it to count towards my Cannonball, so, despite the myriad reviews already written, I’ll throw my hat in the ring.

The Graveyard Book is the only children’s book I can remember that begins with a triple homicide. While that made me instantly hesitant to recommend this to any children that I knew, it certainly did the job of drawing me in and getting me invested in the story.

From the very first sentence, Gaiman sets his tone: eerie, but beautiful. An assassin introduced to us simply as “the man Jack” has just murdered a man, his wife, and their daughter in their beds. He’s looking for their son, but the boy has toddled out of the house and into the graveyard across the street. As Jack goes looking for the boy, a ghostly couple, the Owenses, take him under their wing. Their friend Silas, a mysterious figure, helps to convince Jack that the boy must have gone elsewhere.

After the rest of the graveyard’s denizens agree to allow the boy to stay, the Owenses adopt him, naming him Nobody — “Bod” for short. They love him like a son, and become his surrogate family. Silas acts as his protector, and as the only non-ghost in the graveyard, he is able to slip out regularly and get food and clothes for Bod.

As the story progresses, Bod meets new people, makes new friends, experiences some harrowing adventures, and comes to terms with who he is and the fact that he has to go out into the world and live his life someday.

Despite the murder that begins the book, I still have to recommend this book to every kid I know. This book is beautifully written, and every kid should experience writing like this.

What sets Gaiman’s writing apart from the Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowlings (yeah, I said it) of the world is the presence of subtlety. Blessed, blessed subtlety. Bod doesn’t scream at his friends; he doesn’t lose his temper at the drop of a hat, and the fate of the entire world doesn’t rest on his shoulders. He’s important, sure, but he’s no savior. He’s just a regular kid trying to survive a cruel world.

That’s one of the things I really appreciated about Bod as a character: he was refreshingly normal — perhaps not so much in his circumstances, but certainly in his attitudes and his reactions to things. At the end of the story, what makes Bod truly remarkable isn’t his abilities or any special powers he has, but the fact that he has been raised by such a remarkable family: this motley crew of graveyard dwellers.

The relationships that Bod has with his adoptive parents and the rest of the graveyard community are another strong part of this book. Gaiman gives them a real sense of community. We’re seeing most of the story from Bod’s point of view, but the reader still gets the sense that there’s a community here that’s greater than he is. He’s not the center of the universe like some other main characters I could mention.

There’s a haunting silence that fills most of the book, in stark contrast to the yelling and explosions and Mexican standoffs that many children’s authors have taken to depending on to keep their young readers turning pages. And the quiet beauty of Gaiman’s writing is far more effective than the in-your-face gaudiness of most children’s lit today.

God bless you, Neil Gaiman. I’d begun to give up hope that children’s lit could be gripping and well-written. But Gaiman crafts his story with great care and skill, and presents his audience with a chilling tale that still touches the heart.

Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling: bow to your master. Gaiman owns you both.

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Cannonball 27: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
They say that you should write what you know. Plenty of books include references to their authors’ real life experiences. This is certainly the case for Anna Karenina.

The book actually follows two characters whose lives are loosely connected. The titular character, Anna Karenina, is married to a statesman, Alexei Karenin, and they have a young son, Seryozha. She has everything she could possibly want — or so she thinks until she meets the young, dashing Count Vronsky.

The second storyline follows Konstantin Levin, whom Tolstoy based largely on himself. Levin wants nothing more than a simple country living and a family to share it with, but the girl he loves, Kitty, has refused him because Vronsky has been flirting with her.

Anna’s brother, Stepan, is married to Kitty’s older sister, Darya. The book begins with a crisis in Stepan’s marriage: he’s been unfaithful to Darya. Ironically, Anna is the one who convinced Darya to forgive Stepan. Shortly thereafter, she meets Vronsky and carries out a flirtation with him that ends in adultery.

At first, Anna’s affair is about her infatuation with Vronsky and his near-worship of her. But after Karenin discovers their affair, she chooses to run away with Vronsky, and a destructive chain of events is set in motion.

In the meantime, Levin withdraws to his country estate to lick his wounds after Kitty rejects him. During his time there, he comes to truly appreciate the peace of pastoral living.

Tolstoy said that Anna Karenina was about family, and the contrast between the Karenins and the Levins shows two vastly different family lives: the idyllic, pastoral happiness of the Levins and the languid, corrosive misery of Anna and Vronsky.

There’s no question that Tolstoy is an amazing writer. After spending years being intimidated by Russian lit, I was surprised to find that Tolstoy was quite readable. Considering its length, the book is well-paced and doesn’t drag, except when it kind of needs to in order to accentuate the monotony and meaninglessness of Anna’s life.

However, I did find the novel somewhat self-indulgent at times. Levin’s progression through the novel mirrors Tolstoy’s life a little too precisely at times, to the detriment of the story. Tolstoy added Part Eight of the novel as an afterthought, and against his publisher’s advice — in fact, he self-published it because his publisher wouldn’t do it.

Being a Christian myself, I can understand why Tolstoy felt the need to add a Christian conversion for Levin at the end of the novel. However, from a literary point of view, the novel would have been stronger without the neat, happy ending.

It reminded me of when I first became a Christian in high school and tried to write the gospel into every essay assignment that year in a misguided attempt to give honor to God. I later came to see that it was okay for me to stick to the topic in my essays without trying to force God into it. I learned that there was a time and a place for God-related conversations, and that high school English wasn’t always the appropriate avenue for sharing my enthusiasm for my budding faith in God.

From a story standpoint, it was odd to me that Levin seemed to have already found peace and happiness in his family life, and that he suddenly starts to feel all conflicted and miserable out of nowhere, and at the very end of the story. While I can agree with Tolstoy’s message there, I didn’t think it added much to the impact of the novel as a whole. There was a reason I never got higher than a B on any of my “Christian tangent” essays.

But, at the end of the day, there’s no denying that Anna Karenina is a pretty amazing work, and it was definitely worth the read.

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