Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
I ended March with a disappointing semi-apocalyptic novel, Black Moon. As I was finishing it, I got the notice from the library that my hold on Station Eleven had come in. It was much better.
Mandel goes to the Stephen King well to find the source of her apocalypse: a super flu that races around the world and quickly wipes out much of the population, leaving the few survivors to attempt to forge a new society with almost no modern technology.
She zigs and zags between the first days of the plague, 20 years later as survivors attempt to put society back together, and then some background of a few key characters from well before the super flu. She handles this quite nicely, with each jump in time either adding in key elements of back story or building on what the last flashback introduced.
I also loved the way the book rather casually built toward a dramatic encounter near the book’s end. There are two important meetings at the close, but one comes almost as a surprise as the other gets the bulk of the attention in the build-up. When she gets there, she rips the band-aid quickly, to perfect effect.
A False Spring – Pat Jordan
I’ve shared several of Jordan’s articles about baseball over the years. I was finally able to go back to the beginning of his writing. This is an accounting of his final years of high school and beginning of his professional baseball career, which took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Without much adornment Jordan lays out how naive he and his brother, who represented him in contract negotiations, were as they worked to get him a contract after high school. He shows, warts and all, how unprepared he was for life in small, minor league towns when he went off to play pro ball. And, in rather casual and shocking language, he shares how, while writing the book in the early 1970s, he discovered he had fathered a child in his first minor league summer.
Jordan entered professional baseball with great promise, but never harnessed his tremendous natural abilities. In the final portion he runs through his final, painful attempt to salvage the hype that came with the signing bonus he received in the summer of ’59.
At no point in the book does Jordan paint himself as a sympathetic character. Which is what makes this such a great read. He looks back, as a married father in his early 30s, on the over-paid, callow, insecure kid he had been and shares it all with the world.
The Increment – David Ignatius
RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES! Actually this was published in 2009, but it rings true even now. It centers on an Iranian nuclear scientist, who after becoming disillusioned with the path his country’s leaders have taken, approaches the CIA to share the secrets of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. As a CIA agent works to get the scientist out of the country for a meeting, he runs into pressure from the White House, which is eager to go to war with Iran, and the British, who have their long-term, secret plans to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program exposed.
This is a good, quick read with just the right amount of twists and turns and intrigue.
Stars And Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76 – Dan Epstein
Equal parts sequel and deeper dive to his earlier Big Hair And Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s, here Epstein focuses solely on the 1976 season. He holds to the familiar formula of each chapter covering a month, kicked off by a review of what was going on in the world, pop culture, and American society in general before buckling down to hit the high points of what happened in baseball that month.
He has tons of great material. The labor battles between players and owners in preparation for the first-ever free agent class. A presidential election. Mark Fidrych. The Olympics. The Bicentennial celebration. And the reemergence of the New York Yankees as a title contenders.
While enjoyable, the book also feels a little formulaic and rote. It lacks the charm of his first look back to the ‘70s.
Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent – Larry Berman
Here’s a book I’ve wanted to read for years. In fact, I know I brought it home from the library once. But for whatever reason I never started it, nor did I give it another shot. Until now.
Like the title suggests, it is an incredible story. The Vietnamese communist party sent Pham Xuan An to the United States in the 1950s to study journalism, in the belief that would be the perfect cover for him to return home and spy on whatever western forces were mucking around in the country. During his time in America, he fell in love with the country, the people, and the American way of life. And though he did indeed spy for North Vietnam upon his return – his intelligence reports were vital in two of the most important battles of the war – he also was a friend to most Westerners.
While reporting for Reuters and Time magazine, he became known as the most connected man in Saigon. Reporters arriving in Vietnam for the first time were advised to gain an audience with An to learn how the country worked. He also worked to get western reporters freed from captivity, helped get medicine to people in prison, and was a great friend to many Americans. He always insisted he was more of a patriot to Vietnam, working to remove foreign troops from his country, than a Communist. However, during all this time, he was steadily sending intelligence back to Hanoi, or helping the communist government there understand what America’s, and South Vietnam’s, real appetite for war was.
It’s a fascinating story. Most Americans he worked with during the war were shocked to learn that he was in fact working for the North. Some felt he was a traitor who was directly responsible for the deaths of American troops. But many others, including members of the American intelligence and military communities, recalled him as a loyal and true friend, forgave him for his true allegiance, and bought his argument. “He was just a patriot trying to save his country, and I would do the same.”
No matter what the whole truth is, it’s a hell of a story.