News Of A Kidnapping

img_0203-1Either Pablo Escobar had cojones the size of cantaloupes or he was just plain bat-shit crazy. News Of A Kidnapping is the story of how Escobar kidnapped 10 prominent Colombian citizens in 1990 to use as bargaining chips with the government over the terms of his surrender. Given that he successfully negotiated his own private prison I have to conclude that his gamble worked out pretty well for him. But not so well for two of the hostages, unfortunately, as one was brutally murdered and another was killed in a rescue attempt. The story is told primarily from the perspective of two of the hostages and the husband of one, who worked tirelessly for almost eight months to gain their freedom, and in the process he became the primary intermediary between Escobar and the Colombian government. And I thought my job was stressful. Damn.

The author is a Nobel Prize winner better known for his fiction, which includes One Hundred Years Of Solitude and Love In The Time of Cholera to name two, and I think his literary flair is one of the elements that makes the book so readable. It’s a story so fantastic it’s hard to believe it was real, but it was and it’s fascinating. It gets my enthusiastic recommendation.

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Battle Cry of Freedom

img_0201Touted by some as the best one volume treatment of the Civil War,  Battle Cry Of Freedom spends a fair number of its pages discussing the social, economic and political differences between North and South, going back to the early 1800’s, as the build-up to Southern secession and the hostilities that broke out in 1861. I was 250 pages in before the first cannon was fired at Fort Sumter. It seemed like quite a long way to go. The descriptions of the military campaigns are succinct overviews, and between each one there is lengthy discussion of elections, politics and the evolving view of politicians, soldiers and the citizenry,  both in the North and the South, on the slavery issue. Some of it was rather dry, I’ll have to say. However I did learn a few things I had not known before, and in the long run the time spent absorbing the 866 pages was worth it.

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img_0191-1Charles Portis novels always seem to involve a quest of some kind. In True Grit it was a young girls quest to find her fathers’ killers. In Dog Of The South it was a husbands quest to find his wife who had run away to Central America. In Gringos our protagonist goes in search of a man who is missing in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. He does this at the urging of a lady friend whom he believes is the missing mans wife, but in fact she is his sister. Adventure ensues, with suspense caused at various times by humorless border guards, violent hippies,  dangerous weather and the jungle itself, in particular the creatures who reside there. I’m not going to try and describe how Charles Portis’ writing style makes him the closest thing we have to a modern day Mark Twain, as someone actually said. I just know that I like his stories and his humor, which is very subtle, and I look forward to reading Norwood, if I can ever find it. Many people with opinions on the subject think it is Mr. Portis’ best book.

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Back To Blood

img_0164-1Reading Back To Blood did two things for me. The first is it confirmed my belief that Tom Wolfe’s career as a novelist peaked with Bonfire Of The Vanities. I say this having now read two of his three follow-up novels. I get that it’s almost impossible to measure up to expectations when you have been canonized a living literary legend. But A Man In Full fell well short of greatness, and so does this one. Apparently the publisher thought Back To Blood had touches of the old Wolfe magic, however, because I read where they paid him seven million dollars for the novel. This works out to roughly ten thousand dollars a page, and if it’s true, someone failed to get their moneys worth. I wonder if they read it before they whipped out the checkbook.

The plot, if there is one, was not obvious to me, however I don’t claim to be the most astute reader on the planet. It seemed more like the disjointed story of the lives of four or five individuals whose interests finally come together at the end of the book, where it fizzles to a close like a deflating balloon.

The other thing Mr. Wolfe accomplished was to eliminate whatever small desire I may have had to visit Miami, which I have never done. I now see no need to spend any of my time in a city where there is a “heat lamp in the sky” virtually year round, as the author felt compelled to point out multiple times. I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend Back To Blood. It just doesn’t have the right stuff.


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The Great Bridge

E0C39A6F-D67D-49A0-A9E3-BA641D4DB9E9It took 14 years, cost 20 lives and $15 million, more than twice the original estimate. When it was finished it was called the Eighth Wonder of the World, but so have a lot of things, including the Houston Astrodome, which was cool for a while but is currently unused and vacant, as far as I know. One hundred and thirty-six years later, the Brooklyn Bridge, by contrast, still carries vehicular traffic between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and every day I wake up grateful that I am not in one of them, which, I will concede is a pretty shitty and shallow thing to say and is based on nothing but ignorance.

The book goes into great detail about the engineering of the bridge, which I found fascinating, as well as the Chief Engineer, a Mr. Washington Roebling, who comes off as a man of incredible fortitude, even after the stress from the project coupled with some kind of weird nerve disease leaves him almost totally incapacitated physically. For years he monitored the progress of construction from his bedroom window, about a half a mile from the bridge. His wife had to put up with a ton of crap and she herself was a critical figure in the story of the of the success of the bridge, for which the author gives her the credit she deserves. I’m willing to bet there were more than a few times she wanted to tell anyone who would listen it was not what she signed on for. Regardless, everyone involved did their jobs exceptionally well. In 1944, sixty years after the bridge was dedicated, a thorough going-over by engineers concluded all the bridge needed was a new coat of paint. I apologize for not having any more current facts. I’m sure Wikipedia can enlighten you if you’re that interested.

Had I never read other books by David McCullough I probably would not have been willing to tackle a 562 page story about the building of a bridge. But my past experience with Truman and John Adams convinced me Mr. McCullough is a writer of such exceptional talent that if anyone could pull it off, he was the guy. And I was right. He did. If you like reading history give it a try.

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A Marlowe Mystery and Magical Realism

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The Big Sleep is Raymond Chandler’s first full novel featuring private detective Phillip Marlowe in what would become a series of only five books, which is a damn shame. I wish there had been a hundred. I guarantee I would have read every one of them. This was the second time I have read The Big Sleep and I enjoyed it more than the first. Initially I had thought it was “cliche heavy” but I changed my mind after the second time through. To me reading Chandler’s writing is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Bizarre, lurid, magical, poetic, amusing, sad, violent.  A verbal Mardi Gras. These are some of the words used to describe One Hundred Years of Solitude in reviews I read, and all of them are spot on. The book often appears on those lists of books everyone must read, and with good reason. It is unlike any novel I have read before, and I mean that as a high compliment. I have only two minor complaints. First, it’s a bit long. Secondly, I had a hell of a time keeping seven generations of male Buendía characters straight due to their similar names, but that’s more my fault than the books. High praise must also go to the translator, who did a masterful job. 


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The Forgotten Man

thumbnailI can’t say for sure that I learned anything from The Forgotten Man. The book jacket promised a “corrective to the popular version of the New Deal.” I guess it would help if I knew more about the popular version of the New Deal than I actually do. My knowledge begins and ends with the WPA, and only because there are still physical reminders of the work that was done under that program. My main take away is that when government tries to micro-manage things like wages, profits, etc. it never turns out the way it was intended. Human beings will always resist that kind of control. The book is a little dry but not so much that I ever thought of giving up on it. And I can say with certainty that I now know more about Wendell Willkie than I ever dreamed I would. Whether or not that’s a good thing I haven’t yet decided.

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