So, I’m totally stealing this idea from NTE. These are the books I attempted, but wasn’t able to finish (for one reason or another). I really like the idea of including these books in my Cannonball, if for no other reasons than they still warrant some discussion.
In no particular order:
Dracula, by Bram Stoker (4 stars)
I loved Stoker’s writing, and the book had a beautifully sinister atmosphere to it. It’s not hard to understand, reading this, why the book resonated so strongly with people, and has been passed down through the ages, again and again, retold and reformulated for different generations. Despite the familiarity, there’s a masterful and patient build to the ultimate payoff. It’s wonderful.
But….I’ve just been down this road so many times, having seen an innumerable number of films. It simply wasn’t fresh enough to hold my interest. Or I wasn’t in the right place to explore well-trodden ground. Or I had a book I really wanted to read sitting on hold, calling my name while I pretend to be indifferent. Or any number of other reasons. Whatever it was (I started this back in June), this book just could hold me in its sway.
Patriot Games, by Tom Clancy (3 stars)
I started this in August, though it seems like three years ago. And it was a slog. I read approximately two-thirds of it, and always planned on finishing it (it’s still on my nightstand). My father loved Tom Clancy, and I read this in middle school with some enjoyment. But….I did not like this book at all. It was fine, for what it is, but there was nothing here for me to latch on to.
The first comment I wrote in my unfinished draft is, “I tire of endlessly capable and experienced heroes.” And that sums up my feelings of this book fairly well.
Jack Ryan is inimitable. He’s keenly intelligent, calm under pressure, and has the perfectly background to end up saving the royal family from a terrorist attack while on vacation in England. That’s how the book starts. And, look, I get that a lot of people like this sort of things – Clancy sold millions of books (he created an industry – the Jack Ryan books are still going, having 22 books as of 2016), and the movie adaptations usually did fairly well. But it’s not my thing.
And I have a real problem with how Tom Clancy approaches the deeply intricate web of international politics. The Troubles in Great Britain and Ireland has deep historical roots, and the motivations on both sides of the issue are complex, multi-faceted, and often contradictory and unexpected. But Jack Ryan (and, by extension, Tom Clancy) cuts through all of that with very clear and distinct opinions. There’s a complete absence of nuance and understanding, and terrorism is presented as always (without exception) cowardly and unacceptable. And, I’m sorry, it’s not. “Terrorism” is a vague term that’s used more for political gain than to adequately described a martial tactic. It’s often true that describing someone as a terrorist says more about your sensibilities than it does the target of your aspersion. So when I read about the terrorists in this book, that tells me a great deal about Jack Ryan (and Tom Clancy) than it does the characters in the book.
And I know that my reaction, here, is probably far too cerebral for the book – but I stand by it. Tom Clancy was famous for going deeply into the weeds of military jargon and detailed descriptions of Naval vessels and military aircraft. He made his career by filling pages of text with minutiae that most writers don’t bother including. I think it’s a fair criticism to say he should’ve spent a little more time breaking down the struggle for Irish independence, and looking at both sides of the conflict. It might have made for a more engaging, character driven story….Though, that probably wasn’t his intent.
One Second After, by William B. Forstchen (1 star)
This came to my attention pretty late in the year, mainly because it has the tag-line of being mentioned on the floor of Congress. The forward was written by Newt Gingritch, which, while it wasn’t a huge selling point for me, still gave the book a certain level of gravitas as to make it intriguing.
Set in the immediate aftermath of an EMP attack against the United States, it’s set in a small western North Carolina mountain town, and centered around a widowed college professor and father of two girls.
So, this sounds like something that’s right up my ally.
And while the frame of the book is certainly intriguing, it’s the actual construction of the novel that turned me off. John Matherson is an expat from New Jersey, so much of his perspective is as a northerner living in the South, and I don’t find it to be accurate. I grew up in Oklahoma and moved to North Carolina as a teenager, so I struggled with a lot of the things that a person like Matherson would. The dialect was often indecipherable, the underlying racial dynamics of small town life could be shocking and intimidating, and the cultural identifiers of living in “The South” live close enough to the surface that they frequently rear their ugly heads, but are generally kept far enough down that you tend to forget about them during their intervals of remission.
But there’s a nobility here, in this book, that I’m unfamiliar with. It’s the nobility of the Conservative Christian right. The small town values, and traditional gender roles, and strong white men who understand hard work but are frequently bamboozled by technology and girls. I don’t know. It’s nothing over the top – I’m not trying to make a caricature of this book, but this book had such a……Republican feel to it. Which is weird, because I’m not anti-Republican. I have some conservative leanings, and often disagree with liberals just as much (or more, in some cases) as I do conservatives. But there was an unmistakable undercurrent that I could never really ignore enough to get lost in the narrative.
Matherson is a widowed father of two girls, and he deeply loved his wife. He wants to start dating again, but can’t let go of what he’s lost. There’s a scene where he encounters a beautiful woman, and he thinks to himself (I’m quoting here), “If you don’t check an attractive woman out, even for a second, it’s an insult. If you do, there might be a cold, icy stare.” ……So, I fully admit to not being able to read anyone’s mind (man or woman), that is complete and utter bullshit. I’ve met many attractive women in my life who I didn’t check out, and I don’t recall ever been given a “cold, icy stare” for my indifference. People (man or woman) simply don’t demand that kind of attention, all the time, from everyone. That kind of perspective – that placement upon woman of compulsory physical attention – is just fucking gross. I’ve never met a woman (attractive or not) who demanded that they be judged by others. It’s absolutely ludicrous, but it’s thrown out so casually that it seems like it should be taken as a matter of course. Why wouldn’t an attractive woman want to be judged by every man she encounters? But don’t do it too much, because you know how those silly women can turn on a dime and become all shrewish. Ugh. No thanks.
So I only got about a third of the way through this book. Little things like this are peppered throughout the novel.
I will say, it’s interesting to me how different small town life is presented, here, compared to someone like Stephen King or Richard Russo.