OK, I didn’t finish the book. After more than 300 pages of fine print and exquisitely crafted sentences I perished of exhaustion before ever learning who won the French Revolution. Schama’s command of the subject matter is extraordinary and his ability to lecture at length is similarly impressive. To read Schama, rather than to watch him lecture (I strongly recommend watching his BBC series, The Power of Art) takes unbroken concentration and enough time to cover more than a thousand pages. I was surprised to discover that his book presupposes so much knowledge of the actors and their actions Schama’s goal, I believe, is not to describe what happened during the revolution so much as to explain why. His book is an intellectual history of the revolution, its impact on what Frenchmen thought of themselves, and the further democratization of western society. I wish I could have stuck with it, and maybe I’ll get back to it, but the commitment to stay with him even when I could not track all the players on the field nor focus on his extended commentary was more than I could manage.
So much promise, so little delivery. David Downie sets his mind to walking the old pilgrim trail of Saint James. He’s trying to recover from overeating for a lifetime. He wants to find himself without succumbing to spirituality, which he cynically despises. He does like Gauls, Caesar, good coffee, and pretty scenery, however. Only problem is the book sucks. Mostly he gives us self-important field notes. Thus, no section is longer than a couple of pages. He is so intent on dissing pilgrims and their spiritual journeys the reader is left to suspect he is establishing a strawman right from page one. His recounting of history appears to be coming from a single guidebook he is carrying with him. I could have read my own guidebook it that was the level of discovery I was hoping for. He is self-consciously snarky. Probably served him well has a food writer for magazines, but not here.
Why are so many contemporary detectives so depressed? Here’s another: Detective Avraham Avraham, a lonely, single, self-doubting Israeli detective slogging into a job that utterly consumes him. His first case, or at least the first in the series, revolves around a missing teenager, Ofer. Ofer is sixteen, introverted, sharing his bedroom with his younger brother, and spending way too much time on his computer. Ofer has a creepy neighbor downstairs, tense inattentive parents, and apparently no real friends. After Ofer heads to school on Wednesday morning and doesn’t return, Avraham Avraham has to find him. Someone once said you read mysteries only in part to figure out whodunnit. The other part is to learn about foreign places and times. The Missing File, translated from Hebrew, does reflect contemporary Israel, but only subtly. This mystery could have taken place anywhere. It’s an easy read, so credit goes also to the translator as well as the author, but also a little scary, probably because of the emphasis on foreshadowing that heightens the feeling of anxiety.