Oct 212015
 

goldMatthew Hart purports to answer all your questions about gold.  Why does it have value?  How is it mined?  What is the historical significance of gold?  Why should anyone own any?  After dispensing with theft from contemporary South African mines and the history of gold rather briefly, the book devolves into two rather dense sections.  First, is a jargon-rich explanation, best understood by fellow economists, for the gold standard that backed much of the world’s currencies until the 1970s.  Second, is a tedious description of how a few ounces of gold are chemically extracted from tons of useless rock.  Interspersed are some not very compelling travelogues to some of the world’s most interesting gold mines.  Though it is presented only as a passing thought the inevitable conclusion is that gold’s value is currently no different than the value of a famous painting.  It is worth only as much as someone who collects such things is willing to pay.

Jan 182015
 

narrowroadIn the central third of this novel, a New Zealand prisoner of World War II, enslaved by the Japanese endures countless, excruciatingly detailed horrors in the jungles of Burma.  Only he really doesn’t.  Flanagan does a terrific job of describing kiwis, aussies, and other British subjects who are being driven by their Japanese captors to build a railway through the rainforest.  Soldiers starve while working ungodly hours to construct an aimless path through the forest using not much more than their bare hands, fear of being beaten (again), and their slowly diminishing will to survive.  They contract ulcers, beri-beri, pellagra, cholera, gangrene, and when they are lucky enough, death.  The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is the doctor who treats them all and lives throughout the book an extended male fantasy.  In the jungle, Evans never really has to do hard labor.  He is elected de facto leader of the camp, yet contracts nothing more than a scratch on his shin, the hardship of having to forego a steak as a sign of leadership, and receipt of a letter from his fiance that his mistress is dead.  And that brings us to the first third of the book, wherein Evans, bored with his straight-laced fiance takes up with the voluptuous and sexually adventurous wife of his uncle.  And in the last third, after the war, when his fiance takes him back, Evans continues to dally with innumerable additional romances.  There you have it.  In convoluted writing and obscure passages we track a man who is a war hero and unrepentant philanderer.  What more could any male reader ask for?  This book won the 2014 Mann Booker Prize and made a lot of 2014 must-read lists, so I might be the only one that didn’t care for it, but seriously?

Apr 292010
 

The British caste system of the 18th century was unendurable for average citizens and petty crime was often a necessity. Read Dickens, for example. In this book a British family hits rough times and is pardoned from the gallows only to be banished to the British penal colony of Australia. Brits make a go of colonization. Aborigines suffer. A country is born. Granville’s history is accurate and sympathetic to everyone involved. Being an immigrant is hard. Being an Aborigine is harder. The story is well told, but there are no shattering insights. August 2008.

Apr 292010
 

Feh. Zuzak’s means well. An Australian teenage no-goodnik performs saintly deeds for friends, acquaintances, and strangers transforming himself from a messenger of love to the message of love. But the book is stale and ponderous. It’s written for young adults, but It doesn’t have the carrying power of a Harry Potter or The Book Thief (also by Zuzak), one of my favorite books of all time. February 2008.