Howard Means: The Best Books That Tell a Big Story Through a Small Lens

From a post on by Howard Means headlined “The best books that tell a big story through a small lens”:

I’m not a big fan of 800-page biographies, sprawling histories, or overweight novels that tell me everything about a subject but give me no place to sit down and enjoy the view. I want something that anchors my interest, that holds my imagination, that shows me the general through the particular — something that hints at a bigger meaning, a bigger world without shoving my nose in it. To me, great writing is all about compression — not the number of words but the richness of every word. I want a book that opens up like a flower as I read it.

The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive, by Philippe Sands

This history reeled me in slowly but relentlessly. At one level it’s the story of a fairly high level but mostly forgotten Nazi official named Otto von Wachter, his constantly deepening entanglement in the German war machine and its horrors, and his post-war flight to Rome, with hopes of joining the “ratline” — Nazis resettled in South America with the help of a well-placed Vatican bishop. The author’s own Jewish family members were among those Wachter sent to their deaths, and his principal living source for the history is Wachter’s son, a fascinating pairing. But at a deeper, even more engrossing level, Ratline is about memory and forgetting, about the delusions that allow us to go on when the truth is too awful to accept.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannettee, by Hampton Sides

This is another history that drew me in with a tightly focused story — an 1879 expedition to reach the North Pole — then overwhelmed me with a slowly dawning realization: The expedition was sheer insanity based on assumptions that are whacky beyond belief but were state-of-the-art thinking less than a century and a half ago. George Washington De Long and his crew aboard the Jeanette left San Francisco expecting to spend a single winter trapped in the polar ice before popping into a temperate Arctic Sea and steaming their way straight to the apex of Planet Earth. Instead, the crew endured more than two years of almost unimaginable hardship. That any of them survived to tell the tale testifies to the indomitability of the human spirit.

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

If you like books that open like a flower, as I do, you might very much enjoy this novel set mostly in and around an exquisite Malaysian garden designed by the one-time gardener of the Emperor of Japan. The author, himself Malaysian, hangs a heavy load on that little plot of land — love and pain through five decades, the Japanese occupation of the Malay peninsula during World War 2, the principles of existential gardening, and gnawing memory — but he keeps the focus tight while suggesting so much more. To describe the novel at greater length risks destroying its fragile infrastructure.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

I’m not sure why war books have dominated my leisure reading of late, but Michael Ondaatje, who wrote a wonderfully complex World War 2 novel in The English Patient, has returned to the subject with a, to me, more accessible tale in Warlight. Don’t expect all the vagaries to be magically made clear by the end, but do anticipate being engrossed by a subtly heartbreaking story of a brother and a sister abandoned by parents called to war duty (or maybe not) and left to the care of a mishmash of mysterious rogues (or maybe not again.) It’s a novel about the dislocation of wartime, literally and figuratively, within lives and without.

Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin

By its very nature, poetry is about compression. At its best — again, at least to me — a great poem opens up over and over as you read and reread it. It’s a constant journey of discovery. And Northern Ireland’s Philip Larkin, the best English-speaking poet of the 20thcentury that most Americans have never read, is a master of the compressive arts. I’m recommending his entire Collected Poems here, but if you read only one Larkin poem, make it “Church Going.” In 474 carefully chosen words describing his visit to a mostly abandoned country cathedral, Larkin delivers the equivalent of a 10,000-word treatise on the state of religion in the Western World today.

Howard Means is the author of Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story

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