CBR III Review #3– The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis De Bernieres

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is a satirical novel set an imaginary country in South America, in a time that must be the mid/late-80s. With a vast cast of characters and a plot so absurd and convoluted that it hardly bears description, the story seems almost impossible to explain, and very hard to review (this is at least my fifth try at an intro…).

Simply put, I love this book. This was my third or fourth reading, and won’t be my last. The reasons are simple– De Bernieres’ character building, imagery, and sense of place are so strong that you feel a part of his world.  The satire works too, though I feel sure I miss the subtler points due to lack of knowledge on South American history and politics. Then there is the prose:

These cigars are, like their coffee, easily the most sublime in the world, but of both commodities they keep the best for themselves, exporting only the dross for the world’s connoisseurs to praise. To smoke one of those cigars outdoors of an evening in a hammock while drinking half a quart of thick black coffee is to condemn oneself unknowingly to a lifetime of nostalgia.

The political satire strikes against all sides pretty equally, mainly pointing out the absurdities inherent in the far right and left while contrasting them to the apathy of the common people. The government is generally shown to be bunglers, with the left hand rarely knowing what the right is doing, and each hand often trying to chop the other off. The plot centers around several different groups of people and their roles in a political revolution of strange proportions– but the heroes are mainly the villagers, campesinos, and simple country folk who live far from the capital but in the midst of the strife.

The satire is mixed with some more straightforward lampooning, and a little bit of earnest thoughtfulness, as in De Bernieres’ take on patriotism:

There are two types of patriotism, although sometimes the two are mingled in one breast. The first kind one might call nationalism; nationalists believe that all other countries are inferior in every respect and that one would do them a favor by dominating them. Other countries are always in the wrong, they are less free, less civilized, are less glorious in battle, are perfidious, prone to falling for insane and alien ideologies which no reasonable person could believe, are irreligious and abnormal. Such patriots are the most common variety, and their patriotism is the most comtemptible thing on earth.

The second type of patriot is best described by returning to the example of General Fuerte. General Fuerte did not believe in “my country, right or wrong”; on the contrary, he loved his land despite the faults that he could so clearly see and that he had labored to correct. It was his frequently stated opinion that anyone who supported his country when it was obviously in the wrong, or who failed to see its faults, was the worst kind of traitor. Whereas the first kind of patriot really glories in his own irrationality and not in his country, General Carlo Maria Fuerte loved his country as a son loves his mother or a brother his sister

The book includes some touching moments– some of love, others showing the sadness of loss, in both personal lives and battles– and is actually a fun read, full of witty banter, broad satire, and more character-driven comedy.

I cannot do this book justice without getting into the characters and their many foibles, quirks, and odd spirituality, but then I cannot do this book justice anyway. Read it. It may be a slow starter (there really is a cast of thousands), but it is worth it.

Don Emmanuel is the first book in a trilogy by the British De Bernieres, so look for reviews of the two sequels to come. I’ll probably pass on re-reading his Corelli’s Mandolin, though it is a fine book in spite of the unwatchable Nick Cage movie they made out of it…

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I promise…

the next one won’t be Stieg Larsson. Though I’ll have to read and review that one soon.

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CBR III Review #2- The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire picks up pretty much where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo left off in terms of relationships and people, though a year or so has passed since we last saw them.

When Lisbeth returns home to Sweden from her vacation/self-imposed exile, she decides to check out her old friends, and manages to get implicated in several murder cases all at once. In doing so she causes trouble for some of her friends, too. Mikael, unable to believe her guilty, is determined to help her out however he can but is somewhat thwarted by her private nature and reticence to accept help and friendship (I get it already– she has trust issues!).

The meat of the book is the side-by-side-by-side investigations into the crimes by Blomkvist/Salander/the authorities, and it moves along rapidly, if not as compellingly as the first novel. The new characters quickly find their places in the world Larsson has created, and some of the old peripheral folks are brought back into more prominent roles, to good effect. The resolution, while satisfying, is not a major stunner or mind-bender.

Several nits to pick:

1) seemingly unnecessary coincidences (a bullet just happens to be a certain caliber, a helmet a certain size, etc etc etc) that were used to move events. Not quite deus ex machina, but not far from it, either.

2) some of the “cutting edge” technology stuff is sadly outdated, even for a book published this decade. Apparently in 2003 nobody had ever heard of a firewall or a good password. That’s fine, but this book was translated into English in 2009.

3) I found some of the personal, theoretically moving revelations about Salander not all that intense, mainly because she does such a good job blocking them out and not caring about them. If she doesn’t, how am I supposed to? We don’t even get a proper sense of her anger this time.

And finally,  I must say I missed the chemistry between the Salander and Blomkvist, who somehow made it through this entire book without having a single conversation (again, seemed a bit heavy-handed/manipulative given how much they could have helped each other).

Again, though, this is all just quibbling– the book is another page-turner, and I’ve already ordered the 3rd one from Amazon. Great beach reading. Too bad it’s winter.

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Cannonball Read III Review #1- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I went into this trilogy with no knowledge of the subject matter, only that they were supposed to be good books (and the Swedish movies are supposedly good, too), and that one of my friends powered through all 3 books in 4 days at the beach last summer. He warned me that the first one started out slow, but really picked up after the first 100 pages or so.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo starts out telling the apparently separate stories of Lisbeth Salander, a strange twenty-something with a mysterious past who works as a researcher for a private security firm, and Mikael Blomkvist, famous journalist, idealist, and ladies’ man. Salander is adjusting to having a new guardian (she’s been declared mentally unstable for unknown reasons– back to that mysterious childhood), and we learn a little about her skills as a researcher, mainly into people’s lives. Blomkvist has just been sentenced to jail for libel after valiantly(?) refusing to defend himself in court. Upon resigning his position as publisher of Millennium magazine, awaiting his prison term, and wanting to get away from Stockholm for a while, he takes a job working for an industrial magnate whose family dominates the landscape in a tiny town in northern Sweden. The job: solve a 40-year-old murder likely committed by a family member on a small island.

Eventually Salander and Blomkvist meet through a common friend and get to know each other (both to work together and in the biblical sense), and fight tooth-and-nail to solve the crime. This is the meat of the book, and where it really turns into a page turner. The twists and turns are numerous and, mainly, unexpected. In the end our dynamic duo solves the crime, re-scandalizes Blomkvist’s original target, and learns to like, if not love, each other.

Snarkiness aside for a moment, the book really hooked me, on both the plot twists and the chemistry between Lisbeth and Mikael. I ended up reading one work night until 5 in the morning, just because I couldn’t put it down until I finished. The relationships are interesting, and their attraction and interaction make you care about Salander and Blomkvist, and you almost dread the inevitable result of their combined personal foibles. The book ends with a nice set-up for the sequel, which I immediately went out and procured, and will review next.

All-in-all, an ideal beach read– suspenseful, interesting characters, and a plot that keeps on chugging forward at breakneck pace. Don’t expect fine literature, but do expect a fun ride.

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