I’m getting a little behind on my reading. I did knock out four books last night – that includes a photography book not listed below – but we’re halfway into April and I’m only halfway through my current book, with about 300 pages to go. Spring break, kid sports, watching baseball most evenings, and a huge book have ground things to a halt. I’ll get back on book-a-week track over the summer.
Anyway, since this is delayed, some quick reviews of my three March books.
The Magician’s Land – Lev Grossman. The final entry in Grossman’s Magician trilogy, it wrapped things up in a mostly pleasing manner. I thought the book drug along a bit in the first third-to-half, but like volume 2, the pace picked up dramatically toward the finish. Still thought the first book was the best of the three, though.
The Lost City of Z – David Grann. Once I read a ton of travel books. In fact, around the turn of the millennium, that was about all I read. These days, I rarely slip one into my selections. This was a pleasant reminder of why I enjoy the genre so much. It’s not a pure travel book: although the author does spend some of the book picking his way through the Amazon, it’s more about British explorer Perry Fawcett’s obsession with finding the city Z, a mythical, lost city that some believed had been the center of a large, ancient civilization in the Amazon.
Grann does a nice job balancing Fawcett’s biography and how he came to be an explorer, the various missions into the Amazon in the early decades of the 20th century, and the efforts to find Fawcett – or his remains – after he disappeared in the early 1920s, along with Grann’s own travels.
It’s pretty amazing to read this book and realize that not only is the Amazon still a rather mysterious and impenetrable part of the world – well, where it hasn’t been burned down – but within our lifetimes there have still been tribes discovered that were unknown to “civilized” culture.
Leaving Berlin – Joseph Kanon. Finally, continuing my work through books that landed on Best Of lists for 2015, this excellent spy thriller. It is built on a fascinating time and setting: Berlin in 1948, before the city was physically divided and during the airlift by the western powers to resupply their sectors that had been cut off by the Soviets.
The main character is Alex Meier, a German-Jewish writer who fled the Nazis in the early 1930s for America, but who has been deported back to Germany because of his Socialist/Communist leanings. However, Meier has secretly been offered a chance to get back to the US to see his young son if he spies for the American intelligence service. As a writer, Meier wonders how he can assist, but his handler insists that simply by keeping his ears open in the Soviet sector of Berlin, he will provide valuable information.
Upon his arrival, he is almost immediately contacted by an old acquaintance who is an ambitious member of the new East German intelligence service. He wants Meier to spy for him.
Meier’s ex-lover is the companion of the head of the Soviet command in Berlin, offering him access to kind of information both the Americans and East Germans are looking for.
And another pre-war connection is hiding a Nazi past that Meier puts to good use.
Things get messy quick, but Meier takes to his triple life almost as quickly. While this is a fine spy story on its own, the setting is what really makes the book shine. Between the rubble left from the war, the coldness of the winter, the presence of occupation forces everywhere, and the constant rumblings of the airlift transports overhead, there is a strong feeling of pressure and discomfort from all sides. It’s easy to see how people like Meier, who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in espionage, could get sucked in simply to find relief from the pressure and survive.