Monday, May 28, 2018

Epic Or Bloated Period Piece?

The Given Day (Coughlin #1)The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a surprise! I am really surprised that a historical-fiction about Boston, Babe Ruth, and more didn't interest me more than this did.

The Given Day is a broad-ranging drama about Boston in the late 1910s. The war is ending, jobs are in demand, money is getting tight everywhere, terrorism is putting fear into the hearts of all, segregationist racism is still rearing its ugly head, and the little guy is getting the shaft.

There's a lot going on in The Given Day, maybe too much. I wasn't overwhelmed by it all, but the preponderance of historical detail bogs down the human story at the heart of this.

The Irish immigrant Coughlin family is the heart of this novel. Sticking with them through out the book might have provided a better, or at least, more concise story. But of course, you can't discuss Boston back in the day (hell, even these days) without bringing up its contentious past regarding poor race relations. So that required Lehane to create his representative of the black community, Luther Laurence, who we spend just about as much time with as we do with the Coughlins. Lehane also wanted to give us a grand vision of Boston, and the country, in the late 1910s, so he added a whole storyline with Babe Ruth, who was just coming on at the time, and who was notoriously traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees at this time, much to the chagrin of long-suffering Sox fans for the better part of a century. The problem with adding this story to the mix is that it makes the whole thing tip to the unwieldy side. Weighing in at 700+ pages, I felt every bit of it.

I'm a Lehane fan. I even really liked the sequel to The Given Day. But this one, while perfectly fine, did not suit me quite like I thought it would. Besides its length I might also cite the somewhat comical portrayals of the antagonists herein. At times they come off as Scoobie-level evil-doers.

But hey, this is Lehane and he's a damn good writer, so putting all the complaints aside, this is still a solid book. There is PLENTY to enjoy here. If you are a fan of history and want to know what was going on in Boston 100 years ago, this is a great read for you!

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Haley's Jack London

Wolf: The Lives of Jack LondonWolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy shnikeys, did I ever underestimate Jack London! Growing up, I only knew him from his Alaskan adventure stories. Later on I discovered his semi-autobiographical stories of working both sides of the law in the San Francisco bay waters. However, only now did I learn of his strident socialism.

There's a reason for that. It's been downplayed. Even after his death he was investigated by the FBI and McCarthy for his socialist leanings. Since the public loved him so dang much for Call of the Wild and White Fang, the best the government could do was suppress his leftist history. So, schools cut that part of his life out of his history. It's a shame, because as it turns out, he wasn't a raving anarchist, but a moderate socialist who believed in a restrained capitalism. He felt an unleashed capitalism allowed for the excesses that created robber barons and labor abuses. He was absolutely right. Look at Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Hell, look at America at just about any dang time!

Politics weigh upon James L. Haley's marvelous biography of the writer, but it's done with balance. Politics were as much a part of London's life as was his writing and love life. These aspects of London intermingle and entwine perfectly throughout Wolf, while capturing the essence of a man and mind ever changing.

London's life was one of striving, of defeats and of victories. His life is a prime example of the American rags-to-riches dream. He is the ideal of the modern reader's fascination with the "troubled protagonist" in fiction. London was a highly nuanced man and this book paints all of that complexity perfectly.

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