Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Book Reads of 2011

For reviews of my final two book reads of 2011, The Templar Salvation and John Henry Days, see below.

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - John Henry Days is written in an interesting narrative style. It shows us events through the lens of multiple characters, some repeatedly visited, others glimpsed just once or twice. A man named J. Sutter is the one most frequently observed, so I suppose he is technically the main character. But the true MC is a particular weekend in a particular town where an event possibly took place many years earlier, featuring a person who possibly existed. The event was a man defeating a machine at the feat of drilling a tunnel through mountain to allow the continuation of train tracks. The man of course, is John Henry. He is the stuff of legend regardless of whether he was ever one of flesh and blood, so a stamp has been created to commemorate him and a festival is taking place to mark the occasion. Colson Whitehead approaches this weekend from a wide variety of angles. Among the people involved in the build-up is a man researching the origins of a song written about John Henry, a man who collects railroad stamps, a woman who owns a hotel in the town where the festival is taking place, a man so obsessed with John Henry that he turned his home into a museum dedicated to him, that man's daughter, a journalist covering the events of the weekend, and John Henry himself. Hints are given throughout the book that just as the famous race ended in foretold tragedy, so will the commemoration. Whitehead has a beautiful way with words. If you're looking for a character driven novel where you'll deeply identify with and care for the protagonist, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a traditional beginning, middle, end style story rather than one which jumps back and forth in time and place, go find another book. But if you're interested in a distinctive approach to examination of a symbolic event, one that will be timely so long as people either resist, embrace, take advantage of, or become victims to the changes brought about by the march of progress, then I point you in the direction of John Henry Days. John took a last stand for human determination before it was replaced by mindless but more efficient machinery. Win or lose, his effort was in vain. He may as well have been battling death. We can postpone arrival of the Grim Reaper, but inevitably his date of arrival will be reached.

The Templar Salvation by Raymond Khoury - I love Knights Templar related historical fiction and enjoyed Raymond Khoury's prequel to this book. The Templar Salvation was entertaining as well, but I can't quite give it a ringing endorsement. It reads fast enough as the narrative is essentially one long chase scene. Technically it's two long chase scene, one taking place in the present and the other in the distant past. The smaller portion of this novel that takes place hundreds and hundreds of years ago is the "hide" portion of the plot. The more substantial modern portion is the "seek". What's being sought? Something biblical/mythical that will shatter the Christian faith and thus humanity, of course. I'm pretty sure that's what was being sought in the first book as well, not to mention some Dan Brown novels. Brown is the superior writer, or so I recall. Much of the prose in The Templar Salvation is borderline amateurish. Forget about exploration of emotions and character development, not that Khoury leaves this entirely out, but it's certainly not his strength. No, his strengths are deluging readers with ancient information in easily digestible fashion and writing action scenes with good guys pitted against bad guys in a deadly struggle, no less than the fate of the world riding on the outcome. I rounded down rather than up from 2-1/2 stars because perhaps I've read one too many novels in this genre. Or maybe I simply craved a better one.

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