Doubling up: a review of Basil’s War and Bourdain’s World Travel
I’ve long been a fan of Stephen Hunter’s novels, particularly his series about Bob Lee Swagger. Swagger is a sniper, reflecting Hunter’s interest in firearms, and I’ve reviewed several Swagger novels for The Smoky Mountain News. I’ve also recommended the movie “Shooter,” a fine film where Mark Wahlberg plays the part of Swagger.
So when I came across Hunter’s latest novel in my public library, I snagged that gift like a kid after chocolate and brought it home with me.
Basil’s War (The Mysterious Press, 2021, 270 pages) gives us Basil St. Florian, a spy and agent extraordinaire who has led, to put it mildly, a rambunctious youth. He’s an upper class Brit who drinks whiskey to excess and who loves to bed women, including movie actresses like Vivien Leigh. He’s been shot and tortured, and at one point he beat a man to death with a cricket bat.
To give an impression of Basil, we have this exchange with a superior officer during an important briefing:
“Basil, how’s the drinking?” the general asked.
“Excellent, sir,” Basil replied. “I’m up to seven, sometimes eight, whiskies a night.”
The big brass dispatch Basil to Nazi-occupied Paris to snap photos of a 19th century manuscript, The Path to Jesus, believing that traitors are using this religious tract as part of a book code, a way of communicating secrets both about the Nazis and the Soviets. During this mission Basil parachutes from a plane with no previous training. Later, badly injured, he flies a German aircraft back to Britain without ever having piloted a plane, where he survives a crash into a tree. He undergoes a series of other harrowing adventures, setting off a kerosene bomb in the middle of Paris, evading numerous German attempts to capture him, and flinging himself at one point from a moving train.
Basil is a witty, charismatic character, a cynic about human nature, daring, and always, or almost always, behaving with the instincts of a fox in escaping his pursuers. The Nazis chasing after him are almost equally skilled in their pursuit, which adds tension to the story.
Nonetheless, Basil’s War left me dissatisfied. The plot was overly complicated — I had to reread several passages and even then found they didn’t make a lot of sense. Even worse, I couldn’t discern whether Stephen Hunter intended Basil’s War as a serious historical novel, a spoof on spies and intelligence, or a more general comedy. The blurb describes the novel as “a classic espionage thriller,” but that seems a stretch.
Basil’s War is entertaining, but compared to Hunter’s Swagger series, it seems sort of pointless.
Now for a change of pace.
We live in a time when coronavirus mandates limit travel abroad, when vacations to Italy or a college semester spent in France are waylaid by restrictions having to do with the virus. With the exception of America’s southern border, where we are apparently admitting thousands of refugees testing positive for the virus, most countries have placed restrictions on travel.
Of course, there is a way to travel abroad without masking up, taking the jab, or emptying your bank account. Instead, you can hop in your car, hit the local bookstore or public library, return home, and visit the Punjab, the Great Wall of China, or the Tower of London buoyed by your imagination while seated in the comfort of your own living room.
In other words, you can read your way into travel and adventure.
Which brings us to Anthony Bourdain’s posthumously published World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (Harper/Collins Publishers, 2021, 472 pages).
With edits and additions by Laurie Woolever, Bourdain’s long-term literary associate and friend, World Travel gives us this famous chef’s takes on the many countries he visited around the world, their special features, and especially the food and drink beloved by their people.
World Travel is definitely a dipper book, meaning it invites us to explore its contents at random rather than paging through it cover to cover. Readers should simply visit whatever countries they wish and enjoy the culinary delights mentioned by Bourdain.
In his pages on New Orleans, for example, a city has always entranced me, Bourdain writes, “There is no other place on earth even remotely like New Orleans. Don’t even try to compare it with anywhere else. Even trying to describe it is tricky, as chances are, no matter how much you love it, you don’t really know it.” Having visited New Orleans twice, I agree wholeheartedly with Bourdain’s take on the city. On both of my visits I fell in love with New Orleans, and yet I never came close to knowing it.
Countries other than the United States visited by Bourdain on his culinary adventures ranged from Uruguay to Tanzania, from Israel to Laos. His travels to all of these places and the food he enjoyed remind us of the beauty, customs, and diverse cultures of other countries.
If you want to savor the delights of exotic countries and cuisine, read Anthony Bourdain’s World Travel.