Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann – Book Review

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann - Book Cover

“WTF!” exclaimed Thomas Mann, the author of “The Magic Mountain,” when he received the Nobel Prize in 1929—for his novel “Buddenbrooks.” Perhaps he himself thought that the story of the Lübeck merchant family Buddenbrook, spanning about three and a half generations in the mid-19th century, was not the most obvious choice for this prestigious award.

What Buddenbrooks is Not About

1, Not about Lübeck at all: You can count on one, maybe two fingers (and that might be generous) how many times the name of the city, where Mann’s family saga almost entirely takes place, is mentioned. You learn absolutely nothing significant about the city; the plot rarely leaves the Buddenbrook residence.

2, Not about trade either: If you expect the current Johann Buddenbrook to to be a 19th-century J.R. Ewing, performing various financial machinations and driving his business rivals crazy, nothing of the sort happens. The Buddenbrooks’ business principle is to only engage in ventures that allow you to sleep well at night. Boring? Not my words!

3, And there is not a single word about the German social processes of the 19th century. The characters in “Buddenbrooks” move exclusively within the wealthy upper middle classes.

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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – Book Review

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - Book Cover

Tolstoy’s monumental work titled “War and Peace,” widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature, looms before the average reader like a distant, unconquered peak. Many are daunted by its page count, others are plagued by fear, wondering how they will grapple with the profound thoughts of the great bearded philosopher. And surely, there are those (including the author of these lines with a holey memory) who fear they will constantly mix up Dmitry Ivanovich with Ivan Dmitrijevic. (Or with Timofey Polikarpovich.)

But everyone, please calm down!

Firstly, like many other things, the thicker the book, the better. Secondly, “War and Peace” is surprisingly easy to read. Thirdly, considering its length, it moves relatively few characters, perhaps barely a dozen main characters, if that many.

It Involves Russia!

However, “War and Peace” is not the most accurate title. Actually, it should be this: Peace, peace, peace, war, and war. This means that after the surprisingly vivid descriptions of the battles of Schöngrabern and Austerlitz, about 7 years pass before Napoleon’s campaign against Russia in 1812.

The story of these 7 years constitutes the vast majority of Tolstoy’s work, from the perspective of several aristocratic families whose fates are more or less intertwined. (The lower classes didn’t have a say in matters in Russia for about another hundred years. So it goes in this novel too.)

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

Woody Allen says.

And how right he is!

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – Book Review

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon - Book Cover

Not So Amazing Adventures

What comes to mind when you see a book title that includes the phrase “amazing adventures”? I’d bet you’re thinking of amazing adventures. Well, those are largely absent from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Or at least they are only present in traces. The title is a classic example of (deliberately) misleading titling. The story of Josef Kavalier, who escaped to America from the Nazis, and his cousin, Clay spans about fifteen years and is a semi-family saga about the golden age of American comic book writing and the “survivor’s guilt” of those who lived through the Holocaust.

The Escapist Makes Comic Book History

So, what’s amazing about The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay? It’s the comic book history. (Of course, the adjective in the title of the book refers to this.) I can imagine that the early history of this classically American genre, the ninth art form, was enough to earn Michael Chabon half a Pulitzer Prize. (The other half was probably due to his humble and passionate homage to 1940s and ’50s New York.) The novel’s Escapist didn’t actually exist; the masked hero is a kind of paraphrase of Captain America, and the memorable cover featuring a punch to Hitler’s face is also connected to the latter.

The second amazing thing in Chabon’s book is the love between Joe and Rosa. After all, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also a love story, and the focus gradually shifts more and more towards this aspect. But no worries, it’s a love story devoid of excess, borne with patience and perseverance, so you can’t help but root for the involved parties.

But Where Did the Prague Golem Go? And Especially Clay???

The third amazing thing is the pre-war, glimpsing Prague, with its famous golem (a massive but passive participant), a crash courses in escapology, and the increasingly suffocating presence of the Nazis.

Who doesn’t get much attention in this novel is poor Clay himself, who eventually gets relegated to a mere supporting role. Even when he does get some presence, it feels forced. (Another puzzled brow-furrowing moment considering the title.)

A Humanist Grand Novel – With Minor Shortcomings

The style of writing in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay oddly matches the time of the story: sometimes you feel like you’re reading lines written several decades earlier. This is due to the endlessly leisurely pace, the boldly drawn-out scenes, or the meticulous descriptions of characters (or even interior spaces) who appear only for a few pages. Some people might find this frustrating, but it oddly suits the melancholic tribulations of Kavalier (and Clay), mimicking the expression of a grand novel, which, unfortunately, Michael Chabon’s work doesn’t quite reach. Nonetheless, it is still a very enjoyable read, mainly thanks to its humanistic perspective and its far from flawless but highly likable characters.

Rating: 8/10

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
639 pages, Paperback
Published in 2001 by Picador USA

The Empty Throne By Bernard Cornwell – Book Review

The Empty Throne By Bernard Cornwell - Book Cover

The Saxon Stories, Cornwell’s historical novel series (and his most successful work), has now reached its eighth installment. The story continues with The Empty Throne, narrating the creation of unified England – a tale filled with the clang of weapons. The series, which began with the early years of King Alfred’s reign in the last quarter of the 9th century, has long followed the same recipe:

British kingdoms teetering on the brink of collapse under the pressure of Norwegian-Danish migrants, evolving into permanent no-go zones; the increasingly powerful Catholic Church; and Uthred, who, despite wanting nothing more than to reclaim his god-damn, stolen family inheritance, finds himself shouldering the weight of a nation’s survival. Again. And again. And again.

And this recipe works again and again – as it does in the case of The Empty Throne, thanks to meticulous preparation, an effortless yet pleasant writing style, and above all, Bernard Cornwell’s endearing, infinitely relaxed protagonist (who learned this attitude from the fine, cheerful, and also bloodthirsty Vikings who raised him.)

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The Siege by Arturo Pérez-Reverte – Book Review

The Siege by Arturo Pérez-Reverte – Book Cover

You might have stumbled upon a few nasty mistakes by Pérez-Reverte before? Like “Good People”? Which, check it out, cunningly mistranslated, is actually “Boring People” in the original title. No worries, though. You always give the author another chance because of “The Fencing Master” (Or the woman’s shadow on the man’s heart), which is a bit like a neo-western, only with rapiers instead of firearms – and more sophistication.

1811. 99.9999 percent of Spain has been occupied by Napoleon’s troops, but Cádiz flips the bird to the emperor with infinite calm, peacefully nestled behind its high stone walls, happily trading through its port. The siege of Cádiz spans about another year and a half, and you follow it through the eyes of three main characters and the kaleidoscope of supporting characters swirling around them.

Inspector Tizón chases a serial killer, on which not only his job but also his own faith depends. And although the inspector is a foul jerk, who mostly gives his investigations a final shape with a bludgeon, he now has to rise above himself. The enjoyment value of the investigation is diminished by the fact that it unfolds first on a philosophical and then on a metaphysical level, until finally, it painstakingly finds its way. But the excitement of the obsessed pursuit is enough to make the incredibly unsympathetic inspector somewhat acceptable.

The other two characters, in return, are much more likable: Pepe Lobo hunts hostile ships with a privateer’s license. In his case, Pérez-Reverte’s book turns into a trace of an adventure novel, but if you have any romantic ideas about this profession, you sober up quickly at the sight of the everyday life of piracy: it sucks, plain and simple.

Lobo’s employer, Lolita Palma, who from a 19th-century perspective is slowly aging into an old maid, reluctantly takes over her father’s trading company. The evolving relationship between these two characters, socially distinct from each other and initially rooted in mutual antipathy is the greatest virtue of the book titled “The Siege.” Lolita has been my favorite from the start; I sometimes found myself flipping ahead to see when her chapter would come. (Just like in the good old days reading Game of Thrones with Arya). I have to admit, from the moment these two characters met, I found the story irresistibly exciting.

And although the book is much more a historical novel than a crime or romance novel, the siege itself mostly consists of the opposing sides shooting cannons at each other with not much efficiency. The essence lies much more in the everyday life. However, the description of these everyday lives is E-N-D-L-E-S-S-L-Y meticulous. I can easily imagine that during the “handicraft workshop” afternoon meeting, when the colonial rebellions’ commercial and political aspects are deeply explored, the dear reader suddenly goes wild and bites off a considerable chunk of Pérez-Reverte’s hefty work. Additionally, some supporting characters are entirely unnecessary; they don’t contribute anything essential to the story, like the salt miner, but the difficulties of the French artillery’s shooting range seem to be somewhat overrepresented. But seriously!

And during the last hundred pages of “The Siege”, perhaps because as you approach the endgame, you increasingly sense a foreboding, you feel that less would have been more.

7.7/10

The Siege by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
624 pages, Hardcover
Published in 2014 by Random House

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Book Review

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Book Cover

If the first chapter’s improbability, where Amor Towles’ protagonist jests with his humor-prone Bolshevik compatriots, doesn’t put you off, and the book’s verbosity doesn’t immediately deter with its many twisty and winding sentences right from the start, then suddenly you find yourself beginning to like Alexander Ilyich Rostov, this charming and kind-hearted bohemian. Although you might have started with the assumption that “A Gentleman in Moscow” is sure to be some romantic affair, full of whining, but then again, it’s not.

We’re in 1922, by the way. Ah, the finest years of communism! Wait, scratch that: The count is declared a class enemy and is sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life, confined to a attic room in the Metropol Hotel. Reluctantly, he has to start assimilating into the world of work.

As a reader, you might not tolerate all the babble, feel annoyed by the verbosity, and get chills from the unnecessary, unwarranted, and superfluous use of adjectives. I’m exactly the same way too! I’ll tell you that clearly, straight, plain, and openly. Nevertheless, I must admire with genuine astonishment when, for example, in “A Gentleman in Moscow”, the relationship between goulash and a type of wine is compared to the not overly sunny relationship between Achilles and Hector, and the metaphor then happily leaps onto a Trojan war chariot from there.

And then there are Montaigne’s essays, the Nizhny Novgorod apple cultivation, and family anecdotes in abundance, but all done with such elegance that it’s very difficult to extricate yourself from their influence. (Moreover, since Amor Towles is obviously a lover of Russian culture, after a while you find yourself surprised, deciding that you will definitely tackle War and Peace for the second time, which you abandoned thirty years ago when you got completely lost in the forest of Russian names.)

This verbosity, however, certainly won’t appeal to everyone. If you’re already annoyed by it at the beginning, it’s better to leave this book alone.

However, if you continue reading, you may feel that “A Gentleman in Moscow” is the MOST PLEASANT novel that has come your way lately: it exudes cheer, goodwill, and disarming humanity, despite being set in a dark era. Even towards the absurdities of Bolshevism, it is mainly addressed with gentle irony. The few chapters where it speaks more directly, such as the one about the Ukrainian famine, stands out from the novel like sore thumb.

And how long does the admiration last? Precisely until little Sofia appears on the pages of the book. After this, the count’s story visibly ends, but Towles’s book unfortunately continues – although it would have been advisable to end it with a masterful stroke. Instead, the focus shifts to Sofia, and indeed her story is much less interesting: a series of trivial, sometimes entirely boring and sentimental scenes. Strangely, even Count Rostov’s quirks resurface. But if you’ve made it this far, you probably won’t abandon the story, which becomes livelier once again towards the very end and turns into a more subdued espionage tale. Still, it slips down from a much higher rating to a

6.8/10.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
462 pages, Paperback
Published in 2019 by Penguin Books

Robin Hood (2010) – Film Review

Robin Hood (2010) movie poster

Ridley Scott’s 2010 work is undoubtedly the most perplexing Robin Hood film ever made (even if you count “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” among them), which, after a decently executed opening battle scene, devolves into a bizarre, multi-stranded mess:

Warning, serious spoilers ahead! But don’t worry about it!

Robin Hood, the SIMPLE ARCHER, under the alias Sir Loxley, casually hands over King Richard’s crown to the Queen Mother (but only by accident, as he gets wasted with his buddies while boating and forgets to hightail).

After that, Robin Hood, the SIMPLE ARCHER under the alias Sir Loxley, infiltrates the Loxley family, and the story here turns into “The Taming of the Shrew” with the understandably hesitant Lady Marion (who, by the way, spends her free time farming with the peasants and feels an irresistible urge to personally rescue the peasants’ goats from the swamp).

Secretly, Robin Hood, the SIMPLE ARCHER, in the DEAD OF NIGHT, plants the grain extorted from Friar Tuck.

The starving village kids (aged 7 to 14) had already moved into Sherwood Forest and self-taught themselves the mysterious art of ninjutsu. They use this mystical method to raid their own village at night and have their elite squad of 5- to 7-year-olds capture Robin Hood hunting in the forest. The beefed-up, terribly HEAVY Robin is, for an unknown reason, transported to their camp Ewok-style. Lucky for him, Lady Marion, the kids’ bestie, happens to be hanging out with them and saves him.

Robin Hood’s soldier buddies serve as a constant source of humor throughout the film, partying without end in STARVING Nottingham. These cheerful, IRRESISTIBLY humorous scenes also feature the film’s most hilarious, usually sexually charged jokes. See “Little” John.

Now, all these are already wonderful things in themselves, but the damn French keep stealing the spotlight from Robin. Two hundred frog-eaters—disguised as English tax collectors—ride around North Anglia trying to stir up the country against the English king. Their cunning plan succeeds because no one notices that they can’t speak a word of English and there are FAR FEWER of them than the entire army of North Anglia’s nobles…

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The King’s Gambit by John Maddox Roberts – Book Review

The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts – Book cover

In the introductory volume of John Maddox Roberts’ historical crime series, now consisting of more than 10 volumes, Decius, a low-ranking Roman official, begins an investigation into the murder of a freed slave. The setting is during the crisis of the Roman Republic in 70 B.C. And guess who Decius encounters right away in the first chapter? Bravo, you guessed it: none other than the up-and-coming Gaius Julius Caesar. Then, of course, other well-known figures of the era appear one after the other, from Pompey the Great to Cicero, and up to the scamp Publius Clodius Pulcher.

Although “The King’s Gambit” is theoretically a crime novel, as it possesses many of its characteristics (coroner, informant, tough sidekick), it feels more like you’re reading a historical novel. The thin thread of the investigation is not very exciting or original (it occasionally uses well-known historical facts clumsily to advance the plot, hello, pirates), and most of the time, it gets overshadowed by discussions of current political and historical conditions. This is partly because young Decius becomes OBSESSED with the idea that he has stumbled into a seditious conspiracy. And that everyone is against him. What?!

The conspiracy accusation later bursts and degrades into a simple political maneuver. There you go! However, Decius doesn’t give up; he continues to pursue the case. No one understands why he is so enthusiastically involved in a miserable slave’s affair. No one. Not even you.

The first installment of John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series mostly resembles the pilot episode of a detective TV series that hasn’t found its own voice yet, but it’s not terribly bad, and you hope it will find its way eventually.

What, however, can unequivocally be credited to the “The King’s Gambit’s” merit is the seemingly entirely authentic portrayal of the historical period. I abandoned the Gordianus series in a similar genre precisely because it lacked this authenticity. Unfortunately for it, I had just finished reading Colleen McCullough’s monumental Masters of Rome series, and it quickly fell short in comparison.

That’s not the case with this book. On the contrary, seamlessly integrated into the text, almost every other paragraph provides information that helps you understand the political and social conditions of the era more clearly or makes you feel like you are strolling alongside the eager beaver Decius on the narrow, cobblestone streets of Rome.

6.9/10 (69%)

The King’s Gambit (SPQR #1) by John Maddox Roberts
274 pages, Paperback
Published in 1990 by Minotaur Books

Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson – Book Review

Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson - Book Cover

King Olav Tryggvason decides to unite the whole of Norway in the holy name of Christ. Anyone unwilling to share his faith, he wishes to cleave in the head with a battle-axe. The threads converge beneath the walls of the city of Stenvik, where those who adhere to their well-established, low-hassle religion, resisting King Olav’s plans, also wish to strike him in the head with a battle-axe.

The first part of Snorri Kristjansson’s trilogy was quite alright, although it might have dampened your enthusiasm with too many indistinguishable characters, constant shifts in perspective, and a slightly clumsily starting plot. Fortunately, during the siege, the story became much more intense, although the incorporation of blood magic, reminiscent of fantasy, into a historically grounded novel might raise eyebrows.

However, the real problems arise in the second part “Blood Will Follow”. It’s as if every minor flaw so far is magnified. The relationships between the characters become erratic, and their actions contradict EVERYTHING. For instance, two deceased characters from the first part are revealed to be alive, only to die AGAIN a few pages later due to a lame plot twist. WTF? Characters who spent the first part engaged in continuous intrigues here embark on the MOST TRANSPARENT conspiracy in world history and, well, fail miserably. WTF?? A mediocre and clumsy schemer herbalist, not occupying a high rank in the hierarchy, starts puppeteering the previously strong-willed king on strings and takes over the direction of military operations. WTF???

And that’s just one thread. In the other, two characters wander the roads of Norway and get involved in mundane situations more and more boring. The negative climax here is probably when one of them feeds a damn dog for an ENTIRE PAGE.

If the uneasy feeling that “Blood Will Follow” has lost its historical book character has been lurking around you so far, now it kicks towards you full force with a steel-toed boot.

And then, listen, what do you say about these two characters actually dying at various points in the plot but somehow miraculously surviving? It’s suspicious that MAYBE figures from Scandinavian mythology are lurking around them. Could one of them be Odin himself? I dunno, but no god could make me read this amateurish nonsense until it’s revealed.

Swords of Good Men 7/10 (70%)
Blood Will Follow 4/10 (40%)

Blood Will Follow (The Valhalla Saga #2) by Snorri Kristjansson
308 pages, Hardcover
Published in 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books