Stalin’s Englishman/The Lives of Guy Burgess: Andrew Lownie

I’m not sure what Lownie wanted to accomplish in Stalin’s Englishman. If he wanted to provide entertainment, he failed. The book is filled with entire chapters of what Burgess ate and drank, what he bought and wore, and who he fucked or tried to — all without any comment on why we should care. If he wanted to provide heretofore unknown facts, he failed. Throwing in this level of detail would be laudatory if this were a primary source, but it’s simply sorting through already plentiful sources and just rearranging them and pretending it’s something new. The book is extensively footnoted, but little new is provided. If he wanted to provide analysis, he failed. Mundane unimportant facts are simply spread onto the page without adequate comment or attempt to explain either why Burgess did what he did, how much damage it caused within and without England, or what it meant going forward.

At one point in the book, Lownie quotes someone saying, “This is a bad unpleasant book about a bad, unpleasant man.”

That line itself explains the entire book.

Reamde: Neil Stephenson

Neil Stephenson must have heard the joke: a priest, rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…

Except in Stephenson’s universe it’s an Ethiopian girl, Russian mercenary, Hungarian computer hacker, Chinese gamer, Idaho survivalists, Muslim jihadists, pot smugglers, game developers, MI6 and CIA spies and Russian mafia who all stumble into a terrorist plot.

If we were back in the bar joke, the entire menagerie would simply walk into the plot. Here, they amble, stroll, sashay, drift and saunter.

Stephenson creates great characters but although a lot happens in the book, it is definitely not, as one reviewer called the book, “fast-paced.”