Friday, February 8, 2008

At Play In the Fields of the Lord

Peter Matthiessen is the man. He has explored the world and written several excellent books of both fiction and non-fiction. I first discovered his work with the masterpiece "Snow Leopard". Since then I have read many of his books on a range of topics: Siberian Tigers, Leonard Peltier, Antartica, and the colonization of the Everglades. Each of his works have opened up new worlds of thought for me. So I was pretty stoked to read his early fiction "At Play in the Fields of the Lord".

It was a pretty good book that explored spirituality through an interesting story. I kept turning the pages in the familiar "reader's rush" to find out what happened next. At the end, however, I wasn't moved. I think there are two primary reasons for this: One, Matthiessen wrote many pages in either dream or drug sequences and I hate that shit. I recognize that spirituality requires a more poetic literary form, but these gimmicks are just annoying to read. Two, the characters were ultimately too one-dimensional. Matthiessen's bias against Western values resulted in cliches of American stupidity and "noble savage" indulgence.

I recommend this book for Matthiessen fans, but not for the general reader of fiction.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

1812: The War that Forged a Nation

Walter Borneman must be a pretty cool guy. I say this because it seems like lately whenever I am looking to learn about a topic that I am interested in, this guy has already written a book on it. Well, avid fans of this blog will remember that Borneman's "Alaska" was a big hit. With "1812: The War that Forged a Nation" Borneman again gets a hit, but not a home-run.

The author is excellent at unearthing interesting anecdotes. In "Alaska" and "1812" the colorful stories involving the characters of the history are a highlight. In "1812", however, the plot-if you will- gets lost in the muddle of divergent stories. Major tangents are taken on minor participants that never really get adequately weaved into the larger picture. Also, although I do enjoy military history, some of the battles were saddled with unnecessary details.

It was interesting for me to read about this conflict from a perspective of what-might-have-been. Both the British and the Americans were interested in extending their borders and the outcome of this war could have meant New England was part of Canada, or that Northeast Canada was America. As it is, the war seems to have been a grudge-match that left things pretty much the same way they were. We'll get 'em next time.

When all is said and done, I would recommend this book only to people interested in this particular war. If you simply want to read general non-fiction to learn and be entertained, there are better options out there.