Michael Lee

First-time author Karl Marlantes tackles some tough subjects—racism among the troops, for one—in his Vietnam novel, Matterhorn.What makes this novel so irresistible is Marlantes’ skill at peeling away the many layers of truth in combat.

Matterhorn is one of those countless hills in Vietnam that makes young men’s lives so cheap. In this case, it’s the Marines of Bravo Company and the hardened NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers. The story revolves around a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, who must quickly learn the difference between officer candidate school and the reality of life in the bush. Lt. Mellas tries to straddle the line between being “one of the guys” and a platoon commander. This division between the troops and a low-ranking officer like Mellas (who is only a few years older than his men) can become too vague if he is overly friendly. In combat, that can be disastrous.

The delicate balance between life and death resonates throughout Matterhorn, as it does in real combat. What is so fresh and fascinating about this novel is Marlantes’ depiction of the specific activities and conflicting motivations that take place in a war zone. For instance, many of the officers (including Lt. Mellas) want recognition by those in command above them. And how, aside from concrete evidence of a clear victory, is this accomplished? With inflated enemy kill counts, something that was commonplace in the Vietnam War. Marlantes also shows the nature of life in the bush for these grunts, the long hours spent contemplating the imminent sudden bursts of horror and loss.

One can only hope that the size of this amazing novel (nearly 600 pages) doesn’t intimidate potential readers, because it is one of those rare books that will never leave their minds. Great novels are underscored by human drama, and Marlantes’ depiction of men under stress—no matter what race or background—is searing and complex. Matterhorn will not only take its place on the top shelf of war fiction, it’s going to knock a few books off. It’s that good.

Michael Lee was a Marine, wounded during the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh.

First-time author Karl Marlantes tackles some tough subjects—racism among the troops, for one—in his Vietnam novel, Matterhorn.What makes this novel so irresistible is Marlantes’ skill at peeling away the many layers of truth in combat. Matterhorn is one of those countless hills in Vietnam that makes young men’s lives so cheap. In this case, it’s […]

At its core, Walking to Gatlinburg is a story about 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson, who leaves his home in Vermont in 1864, a sad and terrible time in America, and heads south to find his missing brother, Pilgrim. In the hands of Howard Frank Mosher, a somewhat formulaic plot becomes something original and unconventional.

Over the course of his journey, young Morgan meets, fights and loves a cast of characters—including a woman who lives in a tree and an elephant named Caliph—that in lesser hands could be perceived as over the top. But Mosher has an uncanny ability to render both character and setting highly believable. His eye for detail, especially in describing the Great Smoky Mountains, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s rendering of the greater Southwest, and his dialects sound spot-on to this reviewer’s ear.

There is also a mystical quality to Morgan’s odyssey, seen in the constant depictions of runes that act as both guide and symbol throughout the novel. Very early on in the story, a dangerous group of killers are on Morgan’s trail for befriending a black man named Jesse, who helped slaves run away to Canada. Morgan knows in his heart that his brother is still alive, somewhere in the South; but in his quest to find Pilgrim, he must now also defend himself against these deadly men, who pop up at the most inconvenient times.

What is so satisfying about Walking to Gatlinburg is that it can be read on so many levels. It is a wonderful adventure story, full of intrigue and plot twists, and it is the story of a young man coming of age, through many trials and travails. And finally, it is a story of love—not only the brotherly love Morgan has for Pilgrim, but the love he develops for his country and its people, in all their variations.

Mosher is a rare storyteller, able to both instruct and entertain, and he brings all his talents to this unforgettable and unique novel.

Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

At its core, Walking to Gatlinburg is a story about 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson, who leaves his home in Vermont in 1864, a sad and terrible time in America, and heads south to find his missing brother, Pilgrim. In the hands of Howard Frank Mosher, a somewhat formulaic plot becomes something original and unconventional. Over the […]

A good essay collection reveals something new about its subjects, while a great collection also reveals something about its author. Zadie Smith’s excellent Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays falls into the latter category. In a collection divided into four sections—Reading, Being, Seeing and Feeling—Smith brings deep knowledge and stunning wit to these nomadic pieces and in the process, brings the curtain up on herself.

A question running throughout the book is how someone, at age 34, gets to be so smart about so much. Smith writes a wonderful homage to Katharine Hepburn and in doing so, imparts an appreciation of the past two generations of filmmaking that film critics will envy. In the section on “Being,” she begins with a version of a lecture she gave to students of Columbia University’s Writing Program. It should be required reading for all writers, students or otherwise. Her approach to, and understanding of, the written word begins to explain how she burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with the novel White Teeth. And her essays on her personal life, especially the tender handling of her father’s memory in “Smith Family Christmas,” “Accidental Hero” and “Dead Man Laughing,” are glimpses into her own complex family, displaying unflinching insight without sacrificing a loving appreciation.

Smith also displays a keen mind for literary analysis in her final essay, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.” Here she bravely disseminates Wallace’s work, not in simplistic terms, but in language that renders the demanding author’s body of work in manageable bites.

With Changing My Mind, Smith has given the art of the essay its most entertaining and educational revival in years. It’s the kind of collection a reader will keep within reach for a long while, simply based on Smith’s virtuosic performance.

Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

A good essay collection reveals something new about its subjects, while a great collection also reveals something about its author. Zadie Smith’s excellent Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays falls into the latter category. In a collection divided into four sections—Reading, Being, Seeing and Feeling—Smith brings deep knowledge and stunning wit to these nomadic pieces and […]

If there are any lingering doubts that Alan Furst is our premiere writer of historical spy fiction, his 10th novel, The Spies of Warsaw, will put them to rest. No one sets the tone of the dangerous shadows and the consequences of misjudgment quite like Furst – and he also keeps the reader guessing about who is trustworthy and who isn't, which makes for a highly entertaining read.

The novel opens in the fall of 1937, when the assembly of the next great war machine from Germany is resonating throughout Europe. There can be no doubt that war is coming. Enter our hero, a military attache from the French embassy, Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, suave and dapper, a decorated hero of World War I with the requisite amount of courage and testosterone.

As if an imminent war weren't enough to keep Mercier busy, he is in love with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, Anna, who is a lawyer for the League of Nations. Matters get sticky when one of his lower-level spies becomes convinced the Gestapo is on to him. This is when Furst really kicks his novel into gear, casting suspicion on every character Mercier has to deal with. He spares us no mischievous nuance in the persona of people such as the Russian defectors Viktor and Malka Rozen, Dr. Lapp, a senior German officer in Warsaw, or the vicious Maj. August Voss of SS counterintelligence.

If peril cast an aroma, its miasma would hover over each page of The Spies of Warsaw. Furst is a master at setting, and his depiction of Warsaw and the surrounding Polish countryside is rife with the grim spectacle of a nation teetering on war. Perhaps this is why the few moments that Col. Mercier can manage with his lover, Anna, seem both so tender and erotically charged. You may never take a train ride again without wondering who the mysterious character is in the seat next to you.

 

Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

If there are any lingering doubts that Alan Furst is our premiere writer of historical spy fiction, his 10th novel, The Spies of Warsaw, will put them to rest. No one sets the tone of the dangerous shadows and the consequences of misjudgment quite like Furst – and he also keeps the reader guessing about […]

Author Steven Pressfield has forged a considerable reputation as a historical novelist, focusing on the more ancient civilizations. His 1998 novel Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae against an overwhelming number of Xerxes' troops in 480 B.C., helped inspire a whole new wave of interest in that heroic encounter. Now he turns his sights on the desert war of World War II and the formidable talents of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the so-called “Desert Fox.” Told as a written memoir from a young British lieutenant, R. Lawrence Chapman (aka Chap), Killing Rommel chronicles the deadly mission of a commando unit, the Long Range Desert Group, as it tries to outmaneuver Rommel and assassinate him. It's a daring, even reckless endeavor that takes a special group of men.

Pressfield has never been shy about sharing his vast knowledge of ancient weaponry and now, moving to the era of World War II, he hasn't lost a step or a spear. And yet he's smart enough not to allow didactics to get in the way of good drama. While the weapons have changed greatly, the men in the trenches haven't, and few writers handle the intense camaraderie of fighting men better than Pressfield. The desert itself emerges as a character, as in this passage where Chap muses on its timelessness and his relationship to it. “I am an ordinary Englishman, barely out of my university years. Yet here I sit, in the vastness of the African night, surrounded by mates who could have stepped from Caesar's legions or Alexander's phalanx.” As you ride in the tanks with the men toward the conclusion of the novel, you come to realize that what happens to Rommel doesn't really matter. The German commander is respected on both sides for his gentlemanly behavior toward troops. He refuses to execute POWS or Jews, earning the wrath of Hitler and sealing his own fate. No, it's what happens to the men we've come to know through Pressfield's masterly characterizations that has become so vital.

Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Author Steven Pressfield has forged a considerable reputation as a historical novelist, focusing on the more ancient civilizations. His 1998 novel Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae against an overwhelming number of Xerxes' troops in 480 B.C., helped inspire a whole new wave of interest in that heroic encounter. Now he […]

Some writers' grasps fall far short of their reach. Not Brian Hall's. In his fearless second novel (after telling the story of Lewis and Clark in I Would Be Extremely Happy in Your Company), he takes a great risk by entering the mind of the tragic and irascible Robert Frost – and the reviewer's oft-used term tour de force has never been more applicable. This book is a remarkable achievement.

Fall of Frost is not a breezy read, nor is it a salacious “tell all” list of lovers and licentious behavior. What Hall has managed to achieve is a serious, but highly readable, piece of detective work into the mind, spirit and work of one of America's most recognized poets. After reading Fall of Frost, you'll wonder how the poet ever managed to put one foot in front of the other, so tragic and tortured was his life. Robert Frost lost his own father at the age of 11 and his only sister was institutionalized. Frost went on to bury his wife Elinor and only one of his five children survived him.

Hall opens the book toward the end of Frost's life, in Moscow, 1962. Frost is there to meet Khrushchev and make life miserable for anyone not helping that to happen. His story is told in short chapters that move through different stages in the poet's life with just the turn of a page. What happens in between is Hall's intimate interpretation of a fallible man, quick to anger, and quicker to recognize his own shortcomings.

Hall delves deeply into Frost's poetry as well, and yet we never feel lost in a scrum of didactic paragraphs – one of Hall's great achievements is that the novel never seems like a performance, though in reality it is a brilliant one. Hall's life of Robert Frost shows us how art can resurrect us from tragedy, how the seemingly insurmountable grief of loss can be placated with a line here or a stanza there.

Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Some writers' grasps fall far short of their reach. Not Brian Hall's. In his fearless second novel (after telling the story of Lewis and Clark in I Would Be Extremely Happy in Your Company), he takes a great risk by entering the mind of the tragic and irascible Robert Frost – and the reviewer's oft-used […]

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