crap i have read recently #25

hurricane katrina

 

Just some stuff I’ve had in my “to read” pile for awhile.  These are both books by authors whose other works I have enjoyed.  There’s probably a few SPOILERS.

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Complicity (Banks, 1993):  If you’ve spent more than a few minutes here, you know that I am a huge fan of Iain Banks’ Culture novels.  I have, however, never read any of his “regular” (as opposed to science fiction) works.  Complicity is a comparatively short and straightforward murder mystery.   There are two protagonists.  The first, Cameron Colley, is a self-described gonzo journalist in Edinburgh and kind of a loser.  He snorts more speed than is good for him, drinks a lot, is having an affair with a married friend from college, and plays a very quaint sounding video game (remember, this is 1993).   He is probably suffering from PTSD stemming from his coverage of the first Iraq war.  The other protagonist is a serial killer who seems to have some connection to Colley.  When the killer begins to target white collar criminals and corrupt officials that Colley has written articles about, the journalist finds himself under suspicion.   The novel alternates between first person (Colley) and second person (the killer) and each voice is ambiguous enough that we are not sure if either of them are telling us the truth.   The murders are clever and and appropriate for the victim’s guilt.  There is a bit of a twist at the end but nothing an astute reader wouldn’t see coming.

Banks’ Culture novels are space operas painted on gigantic canvases and involving casts of thousands.  Complicity is all together a quieter and more personal affair.   Unfortunately it starts rather slowly and I found my interest lagging for much of the first half of the book.  It also suffers a bit from seeming dated.  If it weren’t so short I might have gotten discouraged and not have finished it.   It does become more interesting once Colley is both under suspicion and at risk of himself becoming a victim and I am glad I stuck with it.  It never rises to the gripping level of any of the Culture novels, but is instead small tale about a man whose past comes home to roost in a big way.

Banks is gone now and there won’t be any more Culture novels.   There are, however, many more of his books to read.   I am sure that I will read them all eventually.

Score:  Meh.

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Isaac’s Storm (Larson, 1999):  This book about the 1900 Galveston hurricane was written some years before The Devil in the White City.  Larson bases his narrative on source documents, including eye witness accounts of the storm and its aftermath, and sprinkles in a fair bit of “deduction” (or, as I like to call it, “guessing”).   Unfortunately this is nowhere near as good a book The Devil in the White City and it is primarily because of his focus on Isaac Cline.  Cline was the head of the US Weather Bureau in Galveston at the time of the storm and Larson goes to great lengths, despite a dearth of actual evidence, to convince us that Isaac failed the citizens of Galveston.   His thesis is that Cline should have known somehow both that the storm would hit Galveston and that it would be huge.  He concludes that because some years earlier Cline had given his opinion that a hurricane would never hit Galveston that Cline willfully ignored evidence that a big storm was approaching the city until it was too late to evacuate the population.  He takes every opportunity to bring up Cline’s alienation from his brother Joseph, who also worked in the weather bureau office.  There is no documentation of the cause of the rift between the two brothers; all that is clear is that later in life they had very little to do with each other.   In this absence of evidence Larson speculates that it occurred because Joseph was angry with Isaac for failing to take decisive action before the storm.  He mentions it so often that it looks like an attempt to drum up drama and perhaps pad the narrative.   I’m sure Larson was attempting to bring a personal view to this horrific event and to create a protagonist but what we actually end up with is a hatchet job.  This was 1900.  There was no doppler, no satellites, no storm trackers, no up to the minute models and course projections.   Isaac basically had to guess about whether a storm was coming and how big it would be and other meteorologists in the Weather Bureau and in Cuba were in serious disagreement about the direction the storm would take.  Under the circumstances it is hard to fault him alone for the failure to recognize the signs of a major storm in time to warn the populace.

Despite these faults and some others (including a nonsensical discussion of the butterfly effect), the book is absolutely riveting once the storm starts.   The suspense builds with the swells rolling up Galveston’s beaches.   As the wind rises the townspeople come out to take advantage of the suddenly cooler air and their children play in the surf.  When the full force of the storm hits the city we read first hand accounts from people who watched their families and their homes wash out from under them.  We read of heroism as people try to rescue their neighbors and of their despair as their efforts fail.   The storm surge was 15 feet high and washed over the entire city, damaging or destroying nearly every structure.  Entire neighborhoods just disappeared.  As many as 12,000 people may have died in the hurricane and it remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the United States.  Survivors spent weeks after the storm rescuing those who were trapped and recovering bodies.  Cline himself lost his pregnant wife to the storm.  There were so many corpses that funeral pyres burned for weeks.  The storm changed forever the economic importance of Galveston as a port city, although it found later prosperity as a resort and university town.

Rather than trying to lay all this at Isaac Cline’s feet, Larson would have done better to focus on the experiences of the people who lived through it.  Even after all this time their terror and bravery is compelling and there is drama enough in their stories to fill a dozen books better than this one.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on September 25, 2014.

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