Monday, February 14, 2011

Satori - Don Winslow

First line: "Nicholai Hel watched the maple leaf drop from the branch, flutter in the slight breeze, then fall gently to the ground."

In the fall of 1951 Nicholai Hel is tolerating solitary confinement in an American prison in Japan when an opportunity for release presents itself. Hel can shed his captivity if he agrees to help the Americans. The Americans want Hel to assassinate the Soviet commissioner in China. They don't anticipate Hel returning from the mission alive.

SATORI is an incredibly sensual novel. Winslow manages to affect all the senses of the reader as he escorts you through the exploits of Nicholai Hel, a.k.a. Michel Guibert. Hel was raised in the Far East and lives his life according to many of the views and beliefs of the Eastern peoples. He's very cerebral and the novel reflects that almost mysticism of his character.

Winslow also deftly illustrates the dichotomy of the Eastern beliefs and the destruction of war and conflict:

"There was a moment of silence, and then the officer dropped his hand and shouted. The rifles roared and Nicholai saw the two prisoners crumple to the ground.

The Temple of Heaven, its famous blue-tiled roof glistening in the sun, loomed over them."
The plot is amazingly intricate, weaving in the politics and history of the time period. The action scenes are blood-pumping and tightly-written. But I felt the plot took a back seat to the language and the lands and the characters. Hel's mental strategizing scenes are some of the most beautifully written scenes from any book I've ever read:
"Of course his mind went to a different metaphor, the go-kang, and he saw it all too clearly. Their little pool of black stones would soon stretch into a thin line and progress toward Quoc's apparently magic trees, there to group into a pool again. The white stones - and there were many more of them - were even now gathering around them.

Go players had a term for such an isolated, surrounded group.

Dead stones.

And, Nicholai recognized, the flat go-kang surface had become an anachronism. The ancients never anticipated modern airpower, which literally added another dimension to the game. They couldn't have imagined stones floating above the board, delivering death and destruction below."
The beauty lies in the power scenes like this one exert over the reader. It creates a muting effect of the battle going on all around the characters so the reader can focus on the mental struggle more so than the physical struggle.

And likewise, Winslow captivates the reader with the setting. His illustrations exhibit a pure respect for nature, the land and its people:
"Making his unsteady way along the narrow, stone-laid paths, he focused on details - unraveling individual birdsong from the cacophony of a score of species, identifying types of monkeys from their incessant chatter and warning screeches, distinguishing plants and vines from among thousands in the verdant forest.

The jungle was reclaiming the monastery.

Its vines cracked the old stones, swallowed columns and stiles, crept over flagstone pavilions like a patient, persistent tide of Go stones on a board. Yet statues of Buddha peeped through the vegetation, his eyes content with the knowledge that all things and all physical matter inevitably decays."
Very rarely does a book keep me up late anymore. SATORI did. I couldn't possibly put it down until I had finished it, and then I felt a tremendous ache of loss. There were no more pages to turn. SATORI is a book that epitomizes why I read: to be entertained, to be challenged, to travel, to grow, to FEEL. Winslow most assuredly gives his readers their money's worth in SATORI.

SATORI is Don Winslow's prequel to Trevanian's novel, SHIBUMI. I have not experienced SHIBUMI but have added it to my iTouch as my next audiobook. It's narrated by one of my favorite readers, Joe Barrett. I would be very interested to hear from people who will have read these books in the reverse order. Let me know if you think Winslow did Trevanian justice and I'll let you know if I thought Trevanian did Winslow justice ;-)

SATORI will be available from Grand Central Publishing in March (ISBN 978-0-446-56192-1). I'm sure all of your local indie stories will be more than happy to pre-order it for you if you're interested in that. But whatever you do this year, do NOT miss this book.


Rhonda H. February 14, 2011 at 8:08 AM  

I just added this one to my "to read" list. Thanks for the great review!

Naomi Johnson February 14, 2011 at 10:28 AM  

You know I'm not going to miss anything Winslow writes.

The only thing I ever read by Trevanian was EIGER SANCTION, and that's been so long ago that I don't remember anything about it but the mountain.

le0pard13 February 14, 2011 at 3:48 PM  

Excellent review, Jen! This is one of the novels I've anticipated for this year. I remember reading Trevanian (the pen name for Rodney William Whitaker) novels back in the 70s. Shibumi being the most memorable, and as you've mentioned for Satori, and sensual. If there's anyone out there who can channel the spirit of that novel, it's Don Winslow. They have Holter Graham lined up for the audiobook narration. Something tells me I need to refresh my Shibumi experience, this time in audiobook soon. Thanks for this.

Jen Forbus February 14, 2011 at 3:56 PM  

Michael, I got Shibumi on audio and, like I said, it's narrated by Joe Barrett. But wouldn't you know it's one of the ones giving me fits on my sound. Grrrr, I'll figure something out, though and listen for sure. I had hoped to start it today, but this hitch has postponed my start.

I do want to listen to the Satori audio, too. I have a feeling it could be a magnificent audio!

Jenn's Bookshelves February 16, 2011 at 9:51 AM  

Satori has been in my review pile for months. I've read nothing but glowing reviews of this book. I'm simply waiting for the perfect time to read this book. After reading your review, that time is now!

Christine February 17, 2011 at 6:17 PM  

If it's Winslow, you can bet that Brian and I will be picking it up.

Lovely review, Jen - thanks!

Tim March 3, 2011 at 10:30 PM  

I'm a big fan of Trevanian in general and Shibumi in particular. I think Don did a great job but I caught one conflict. On page 40 he describes Solange as having blue eyes and thereafter, green eyes. I loved the book but it keeps picking at me!

Janet Rudolph March 10, 2011 at 3:29 PM  

Loved the book, and Don will be doing a guest post on Mystery Fanfare about how he came to write the book..and about his research. Thanks to you and Jenn for encouraging me to put this at the top of the TBR. Couldn't put it down.

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