Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
The best selling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie, threw some detective action my way, complete with everyone’s favorite ugly, short, egg-shaped Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The plot draws inspiration from a real-life kidnapping, but the similarities end there, as this tale of murder is so far-fetched that CSI would balk at basing anything off of it. That being said, Agatha Christie manages to make the story feel fun and natural. One of the elements I enjoyed most was her antiquated, and therefore hilarious, 1920’s British racism. One character is convinced the murderer was Italian, because only Italians stab with such passion.
Shibumi – Trevanian
I was given this book by a friend and, knowing nothing about it, I was very confused by Shibumi at first. It appears to be a spy novel, one of such a generic and misogynic nature that I nearly quit after the first chapter. As I read on, however, I realized that it was certainly a satire, and quite a clever one at that. Favorite parts of the book include the author breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader that he will not include how a bank robbery occures because it is so brilliant that criminals will certainly try to copycat it and, later, doing the same for a sex move, which he claims (I’m not kidding) is for the world’s safety. Trevanian’s self-censorship has indubitably made the lives of uninspired thieves and fans of highly esoteric sex practices much more mundane.
Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond
This Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction work attempts to explain the dominance that Eurasian civilizations imposed upon their neighbors. Diamond side-steps the risk of racial determinism by arguing against Eurasian moral, intellectual, and genetic superiority, instead attributing the success to Eurasians to environmental determinism. Unfortunately, the book still came off as suggesting tan people are lazy because they sat in the sun all day and ate fruit from trees, whereas white people had to innovate to make up for their harsher winters. I wasn’t a huge fan of this one, nearly the first half of this fairly long book only discusses different types of grains. It wasn’t as interesting as the title would lead one to believe. It also suggests that technology and war-making are the metric by which to measure civilizations, which I find somewhat distasteful.
Collapse – Jared Diamond
Despite mixed feelings about his earlier work, Guns, Germs, and Steel, I came back for more. Collapse catalogs the causes of disintegration in several societies, including the Norse of Greenland, the Mayans, and the statue carvers of Easter Island. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book also has a slow start (Diamond spends a lot of time talking about Montana), but, luckily, the change of scenery continually kept it fresh. I found the Easter Island people and the Norse especially interesting. Eventually, Diamond makes the easy comparison between these microcosmic disasters to the eventual demise of contemporary societies. Despite this, he ends the book on a hopeful note, discussing the success stories of environmental management. He does all this with his usual broad strokes, however, and he does like to get eerily specific when it comes to the contents of dead people’s middens.
A History of the 20th Century – Martin Gilbert
“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” A year by year chronicling of the world in the 20th century. A page turner and all true. It is amazing how many of the events draw such unmistakable parallels to our modern political and social environment. I particularly enjoyed how the lens of history was harsh on the likes of Nixon, Kissinger, and MacArthur. The most shocking part of this book for me was coming out with a firm sense that the present is the only time I would ever have wanted to live. With so much death in peaceful years, natural disasters that make Katrina look like an ant’s tear, and wars so terrible that human lives lost were measured in percentage of overall population, this reader found himself becoming numb to the death tolls that Gilbert was casually throwing out. The scale of humanity is never something I will be able to fully comprehend.
The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara
The primary influence for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, this is historical fiction at its finest. The book covers only four days: the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. This bad boy won the Pulitzer Prize with its imaginative dialogue and beautifully descriptive portrayal of the battle itself. The book is so evocatively written that it managed to create a longing to live in a time when thousands of men would line up and shoot each other from a hundred yards away.
Leviathan Wakes - James S.A. Corey
Ok, you nerds, I lied. I read a science fiction book since my last post. This space epic had me hooked on page one. An alcoholic, hard-boiled, space detective speaking asteroid belt ebonics? A newly made captain and his ragtag crew? I’m about that. Unfortunately, while the book starts off small time, it ends up being a save-the-universe type deal, which I wasn’t as fond of as the first third of the book. Still, I will pick up the rest of Corey’s work.