The Breath of Angels
Review by Geoff Kuenning
Okay, I promised I'd read The Breath of Angels this week, and I did. Here's my opinionated opinion on the book:
First, I'd like to start off with a complaint. I think that John Beattie has committed an unpardonable sin as part of creating this book. In short, it is very unkind of him to have limited himself to a single literary creation, when it is obvious that he has tremendous talent from which the world could benefit should he only find the time and resources to write further works (This is :-), for the humor-impaired!).
In reality, I found the book fascinating. I haven't read many “true-life” nautical books (only My Old Man and the Sea, which was entertaining but not nearly as good), but I enjoyed Angels tremendously. My wife started reading it to me after I came out of anesthesia from an operation, and I fell asleep precisely between chapters 1 and 2 (she claims she read all of chapter 2 aloud, but I recalled nothing of it). Chapter 1 was, all by itself, enough to hook me. When I found myself sleepless a few hours later, I picked it up again and was soon engrossed. I'd guess that I got through 6-10 chapters that night, and by the time I got home, I was picking it up at every spare moment. There are certain advantages to being an invalid: my wife would get up to clear the dishes and I didn't have to help, so I'd stop the video we were watching and read a few more pages of Angels in the meantime. By the time the evening was over, I had finished the book.
Contradicting the stereotypes one might have for a professor of mathematics, John's writing is lively and entertaining, never dry. He is not normally a descriptive sort of person, concentrating more on the sequence of events than on the visuals associated with them, but every once in a while some image overcomes his natural reticence and he bursts into gloriously vivid prose. (Perhaps a more cynical critic than I would find these passages overdone, but for example, I enjoyed the hell out of his description of swimming in a phosphorescent sea.)
One thing that struck me repeatedly in the early chapters was the conviction that, although I would probably manage to avoid the particular mistakes that John made, I would no doubt have invented ten times as many of my own. The incidents he experienced were very entertaining (so long as you didn't have to go through them), but they really brought home to me just how difficult bluewater sailing can be.
The “payoff” section, the part where he rescues the drifting castaway, comes very late in the book and is remarkably brief. I found myself eagerly awaiting that incident, since it's received so much discussion on Yacht-L, and somewhat surprised by how quickly its description passes by. At first I was disappointed by the brevity, but I should have trusted John's storytelling talent. While it is true that the rescue and subsequent events happen rapidly, it is also true that when I finished the book, I felt completely satisfied by the amount of space devoted to that part of the story. More accurately, I felt completely satisfied by the whole thing.
Even before reading the book, I was wondering about the title. I figured it was some sort of reference to the rescue, something such as a suggestion that it was angels' breath that helped Martin Simon to survive until John picked him up. I will say here only that my assumption was wrong. The title is explained in the course of the book, and is an excellent one. However, the explanation is brief, almost tossed off in passing, so don't stop paying attention or you'll miss it (and it's worth understanding).
In summary, this is a cracking good book. I recommend that you plan to read it. However, I should warn everyone to allocate an interrupted timeslot for the task, because the book has a tendency to grab you and refuse to let go.
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