Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fall of Giants

Title: Fall of Giants
Author: Ken Follett
Year: 2010
 Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2

Ken Follett is a giant himself- with books like World Without End and The Pillars of the Earth behind him, he could write children's books for the rest of his life and still be read. Fall of Giants does not disappoint. In classic Follett style, he lays out a historical context and creates characters within it that capture our hearts.
The book begins in the glory days before World War I, on the day of George V's coronation in Westminster Abbey. That's only peripherally important to us, as the readers, though: that same day, Billy Williams goes down into the coal pit in Aberowen, Wales. Follett's depiction of a tiny, early 20th century mining town is captivating and evocative; every detail is as vividly accurate as usual, bringing every essence of the miners' desperately ordinary lives to bright color.
Fall of Giants focuses its story on eight incredibly different individuals-- Billy and Ethel Williams from Aberowen, the English nobility Maud and Fitz Fitzherbert, the German dignitary Walter von Ulrich, the Russian peasant brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov, and the American political aide Gus Dewar. Each of them brings a different perspective to the torrent of disaster that is the oncoming World War, and Follett brings their doubts, worries, and fears to life in strikingly human situations.
The book moves forward in sections of time, which is an interesting change from the usual chapter-by-chapter setup for books. Follett titles a chapter with the date that it occurs, such as "July 1914", and under that numbers sections that either alternate between characters or time on the same character. With this setup, we don't forget about characters in the gaps between their segments, and we aren't constantly flip-flopped between vignettes of the different times and places.
However, the book has failings as well. Follett, while gripping and evocative, has some sort of visceral fascination with the taboo in time-period cultures, and gleefully describes it to awkward readers. In one scene, he describes a certain woman giving a man a surreptitious handjob in the back row of an opera. In the first chapter, he describes Billy's woe at his poor sexual development. These details are part of the reality of his characters, but there are copious amounts of them, and could be limited without being too terribly missed.
Some of the sentences in Fall of Giants seem a little choppy as well. As the book is told in third person, the necessity for simple language for simple characters is eliminated, but in some of the cases, it remains. At one point during a section of Billy's story, I was horrified to be reminded of that travesty scribbled by Stephanie Meyer in a paragraph that plodded, "Billy did this. Billy did that. Billy wasn't sure of this." It happens to the best of us, but editing can usually catch most of it.
Despite some small failings, Fall of Giants is still a wonderfully intimate, moving depiction of the true human effect of World War I. We see the desperation of friends caught between warring nations, the destruction wrought on families and cities, and the truly uncontrollable nature of human nature in politics. At the end, we see Germany moving toward the desperation that placed Hitler in power, and the chaos wrought on Russia by its own revolution. Fortunately, this is only the first in the new Century trilogy, so more of this gripping series is yet to come.
Also in classic Follett style, Fall of Giants is a fantastically long read-- around 1000 pages-- that doesn't feel all that long. I ripped through that thing in about 10 days, reading at breakfast, dinner, and coffee. This book is pretty new, so it's pretty pricey, but definitely worth your time. My library had a copy, but if yours doesn't, see if you can get it on your Kindle. It's $18.99 on the Kindle, which seems expensive, but the hardback in real life is $34.00, so suck it up and get the eBook. If you can find the paperback- which I could not- it's supposed to be $16.50, so that's a better buy if you can. However, I will probably read this book again, so I'd like to have it on hardback someday if it gets cheaper. I'll keep my eyes glued to the clearance shelf at B&N.
That's all for me today. As always, keep reading, you pageturners.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Big Thirst

Title: The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and the Turbulent Future of Water
Author: Charles Fishman
Genre: Non-fiction
Year: 2010
Rating: 2

Water is kind of a strangely common topic to write a book about, but Charles Fishman manages to reintroduce us all to the most unique feature about the planet we call home. In journalistic style, he presents water to us in a roundabout fashion, forcing us to see in in the light of what it is: a truly magical substance that we need to respect and preserve.
Fishman, the author of the bestselling The Wal-Mart Effect and winner of the Loeb award for investigative journalism, first reported on the bottled water industry in 2006. "I'm not afraid to ask stupid questions," Fishman responds to how he became interested in the broader topic of water. "How did bottled water get here? It's a completely absurd product. Why do we need to pay for bottled water?"
That stupid question led to four years of research, travel, and carrying jugs of water on his head for three kilometers with Papua New Guineans.
Fishman takes us on an extremely logical journey through the origins of water-- by the way, that Aquafina on your desk came from intergalactic space-- to the usages in different countries, and the history of how water has been treated throughout the past century of easy access and abundance.
But as all our friends in Arizona and Las Vegas know, water is a precious commodity, and it won't be abundant forever.
Fishman's writing style is straightforward, well-informed, and to the point. Although the paragraphs and elaborations can be long, they read easily and conversationally, as if you were speaking with a very well-read friend. He presents more of the facts than an actual argument, simply showing us what he's discovered and where this journey of learning about Earth's most precious resource has led him.
This is the first non-fiction book I've reviewed, and it's been a pleasant experience for me. I was given the chance to chat with Mr. Fishman a week ago, and he explained to me the very simple reasons that he became interested in the topic of freshwater: its effect on our daily lives. At any given moment, you'll see someone with a bottle of Evian or Polish Spring in their hand, and he says that he wondered how it got there. Not just from the plant, but where in the ground it sprang from, and where water came from ultimately. "Having a sense of history, and asking why things happen, I end up talking to astronomers," he joked.
The Big Thirst is a fascinating exploration of something that we already thought we were familiar with. We all learn the water cycle in sixth grade (precipitation, gathering, evaporation, condensation, etc) and likely never think about it again until our kids ask us for help on their science homework. But what if, one day, we woke up and found ourselves wondering where the water in the ice maker came from in the beginning?
Altogether, I give this book a 2. That's probably just my affinity for fiction speaking, but it is kind of a long book, at 405 pages. You can pick up a copy at the Kindle store for $9.99, but this book is actually a super good deal at Barnes&Noble, with the hardback going for $16.25. Either way, see if you can borrow a copy from a friend, but if you can't, definitely go pick it up. It's a thought-provoking book, and you'll feel really well-informed by the end.
That's all for day, you pageturners, you. Open your mind and try some nonfiction.