Monday, May 11, 2009

Book(s) Review: Rugby, Radiation, and Religion

I get really excited when I love a book, and then find out that the same author has written other books, which I can then read and love. I am currently working through everything Alison Weir has ever written. She's that good. I'm looking forward to reading Black Hawk Down (by Mark Bowden) soon, since I loved Guests of the Ayatollah so much.

But every once in a while, I'm disappointed in an author's repeat works. I don't mean that in a slanderous way: if you write one amazing book, that's one more amazing book than most of the rest of us will ever write, so you're already ahead of the game. Still, though, it's a let-down.

So here are mini-reviews of three books from the same author, Piers Paul Read: Alive, Ablaze, and The Templars.

Alive was the book that drew me into Mr. Read's writing. It's the story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose airplane crashed in the Andes in 1972, and their 7-week struggle to survive. Obviously, some of them were rescued or there would be no story to tell. But the story is best when you don't know too much about it, so that's all I'll say.

I read Alive a few months ago, and I still can't put my finger on exactly what makes this such a tremendously good book. The subject matter is dicey; many of the people involved in the culturally, religiously, and culinarily (if you catch my drift) sensitive story were still alive at the time of writing (and still are), so Mr. Read had to walk a fine line between telling the truth and being respectful to the people who lent their cooperation and entrusted him with the task. The author succeeds spectacularly. Alive is absolutely unflinching and entirely gripping. There were any number of mistakes Mr. Read could have made while writing this book, most of which would have made the story sensational, lurid, and voyeuristic. He somehow manages to avoid all of them.

So it was with high hopes that I checked out Mr. Read's Ablaze from the library. Not only was it written by the same author, but its title was another two-syllable adjective starting with A and ending in E. Plus, it was the story of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, which I have always been curious about. What could go wrong?

Well, I'm not sure what, but I do know that Ablaze wasn't remotely as good as Alive. I don't even think it was the author's fault, as he acknowledges many of Ablaze's faults right in the introduction. To start with, Ablaze takes place in the former USSR, which is not known for its user-friendly and easily distinguishable names. At times, it seemed like everyone was named Vladimir Konstantinovich Mikhailovsky, or some variation thereon. Also, a nuclear meltdown sounds plenty interesting, but in reality, you have to remember that you're dealing with nuclear physics. NUCLEAR PHYSICS. Essentially, what happened at Chernobyl was very slow-paced and boring. And the book about it kind of is, too.

(However, I did like the part where one of the officers involved in the disaster went off and wrote a play about it, which went on to enjoy tremendous success in Moscow. I just thought that reaction was so Russian. Upset? Suffering from radiation sickness? Write a play about it!)

With somewhat mediated expectations, I checked out The Templars, which I would place in the "good but not great" category. Part of its just-this-side-of-mediocrity comes from being mis-titled. It should have been called The Crusades & The Templars, or A History of The Holy Land and Religion, Focusing on the Templars and the Crusades. Because this book is about so much more than just the Templars. Its treatment of the subject is shaped like a cone: it starts out all-encompassing, giving us a rundown of the beginnings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and then tapers down to a history of medieval Europe, then the Crusades, then Jerusalem, ending with the final Templar being burned at the stake. It is a dense book, filled with names and dates and places. But if you get through it, it's a good one. This book is best if you already have an interest in learning more about the Templars. If you have no interest already, this book will not spark it.

Final word: if you're going to read a book by Piers Paul Read, read Alive. If you want to delve into the wars over Jerusalem, go ahead and check out The Templars. If you're a nuclear physicist, it's just possible that you might enjoy Ablaze.


Jeremy Palmer said...

I am currently reading Templars and although I have not yet finished, I would make the following observation:
The material is fascinating and I appreciate that the author has included citations from Islamic scholars and historians, but I don't see how the book was published in its current state. It seems like an earlier draft of a paper. There is an abundance of information, quotes, and notations, but there is less literary weaving of persona or storyline.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Mmmm, I was thinking of reading Templars but perhaps there's a better book on the subject. Jeremy certainly would know if a book is still in draft form.

Jeremy Palmer said...

Well, the book is still interesting and the author is obviously a gifted researcher... it's just not put together in a reader-friendly manner. This is, of course, only my opinion. You will notice one of the quotes on the back cover of the book says something like "very readable!" :)

Kristen said...

I definitely want to read Alive. And that's one reason why I think I'm soaking up Desperate Passage: I didn't really know the story.


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