The Emerging Indian Colossus

A 10-day visit to India this month kindled thoughts about a part of the world I have known only through novels and Merchant/Ivory movies.

The ambitions and dreams of the place are huge.  Indian newspapers speculate avidly about a second Indian mission to Mars.  (Did you even know about the first one, completed just two months ago?)  I was blown away by a tour of a new planned city, Naya Raipur, being built in Chhattisgarh province, an obscure area of heavy industry and relatively backward “tribal” peoples.  Rising from the plains of Naya Raipur are solar arrays, carefully planned infrastructure, lakes, recreational areas, and mixed commercial, office, and residential developments.  It’s an immense undertaking to build an entirely new city of a half-million people, and they’re doing it.

One Perilous Joy of the Season

I vividly recall the Christmas morning.  My father opened the book I had carefully picked out for him.  I hadn’t read it, but I thought it would be perfect for him, neatly matching his interests.  He looked at the spine, regarded the cover, and said, “I enjoyed this very much when it first came out.”

Not a good moment, but the beginning of a lifetime of mistakes — and occasional successes — in selecting books as gifts.

My column this month at the Washington Independent Review of Books takes a lighter look at the risks of giving books for the holidays.

Why F. Scott?

F.Scott Fitzgerald

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This morning brings the inaugural installment of a monthly piece I’ll be writing for the Washington Independent Review of Books.  The subjects will be what I’m reading, writing, or thinking about.  This morning’s effort puzzles over the bafflingly inflated reputation of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I don’t get it. . . .

Five Books on Impeachment

The conservative-inspired “Impeach Obama” campaign will wax and wane over the next two political years, a weird residue of the benighted effort to impeach President Bill Clinton fifteen years ago.  Even though the Impeach Clinton effort failed somewhat ignominiously, it has empowered true believers of the Left and Right to think of impeachment as an ordinary tool of American politics.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist sworn in to preside over Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton, 1999.

Thus, as the administration of President George W. Bush limped through its final days, liberal Democrats in Congress introduced resolutions to investigate his impeachment, or to flat-out impeach him.  By 2008, liberal gadfly Dennis Kucinich of Ohio worked to force a vote in the House of Representatives on his claims that Bush’s foreign invasions based on false efforts (“he lied us into war” in Iraq) warranted his removal from office.

WWI: Who was the enemy?

As the World War I centennial continues to gear up, and as I slouch to the end of my novel on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, I have stumbled upon the most remarkable French memoir of the war — Poilu.  (Thanks to Andy Dayton for recommending it.)

World War I soldiers in a Western Front trench.

World War I soldiers in a Western Front trench.

World War I: Fragging Officers and PTSD?

The sequel to my historical novel, The Lincoln Deceptionis set at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.  Accordingly, I’ve been doing some considerable reading about World War I and the peace treaty that proved to be “The Peace to End All Peace,” as some have it.  Recent forays into two American novels about The Great War have proved fascinating and surprising.

In Three Soldiers  (1921), John Dos Passos drew on his own extensive experience of the war.  In 1917-18, he drove an ambulance in Northern Italy and then in Paris.  His novel is unreservedly antiwar and steeped in a matter-of-fact social realism combined with the occasional romantic over-writing of a young man.  (Dos Passos was 25 when the book was published.)

Nine Breeds of Historical Fiction

[This piece first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books]

Historical fiction is flourishing, and its advantages are many. For readers, it combines the familiar with the unknown, as novelists imagine the motivations and thoughts of historical figures. For writers, it provides grounding. Certain characters are already known and even defined. Better yet, the real world produces the most improbable characters. What fiction writer would dare create a character so complex and powerful as Abraham Lincoln? Yet historical fiction comes in many flavors. Here, for starters, are nine:

Fear of the Shallows

Looking back over the year just ended, I am struck by the proliferation of door-stopper books.  This phenomenon — which afflicted both fiction and non-fiction — emerged in many of the most celebrated books which logged impressive sales numbers.  To cite just a few:

“The Lincoln Deception” on has finally listed the audiobook version of The Lincoln Deceptionnarrated by L.J. Ganser.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks, and listen to them all the time in the car, even on very short trips to the market or the gym.

Right now I’m near the end of the audio version of Bernard Cornwell’s 1356a chronicle of 14th-century slaughter at the Battle of Poitiers which I am enjoying immensely.  I think Cornwell is quite wonderful — the Sharpe series, in particular, is a fantastic depiction of Napoleonic times — but a good reader adds to the distinctiveness of characters and the depth of dialogue.  Jack Hawkins, who reads 1356, is very good.

Killing Them Softly

Death plays a big role in most history books, and definitely in biographies.  The death of a central feature often concludes a book.  Even if the book’s story ends before the main characters shuffle off this mortal coil, readers want to know how it all ended for the people they have spent several hours reading about, which usually leads to an epilogue.