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Home » Books & writing

Book Review: Don Winslow’s SATORI

Submitted by on March 16, 2011 – 1:54 am 29 Comments

If I hadn’t already been a huge Don Winslow fan before I read Satori, I think this review would be different. But since I revere his other books, my opinions are, fairly or not, weighted by the expectations I brought to this one, which he wrote “in the tradition” of another author.

Satori is the prequel to 1979’s Shibumi (which I haven’t read), an international sensation written by Rodney Whitaker under the pseudonym of Trevanian. Both are about the singular assassin Nicholai Hel, the son of a Russian mother and German father but raised in the Far East. It’s 1951 in Tokyo and Nicholai is twenty-six when we meet him in Satori as he’s being released from an American-run prison after committing an honor killing. His freedom has a price—he must impersonate a French arms dealer and assassinate a Soviet commissioner in Beijing, an almost certain suicide mission. The assignment and its fallout take him to Laos and then Saigon, where he in turn becomes the target for assassination.

The international elements and narrative style of this book remind me of old-school thrillers like Leslie Charteris’s The Saint series and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Which is fine, except I’ve become hooked on Winslow’s lean, blistering prose (e.g. his famous two-word first chapter in Savages) and wanted to see some of that here, despite realizing that Nicholai is a period character who is much more internal than, say, Boone from The Dawn Patrol, and requires the more meditative style. I just had to get used to this different voice coming from one of my favorite authors.

Winslow transports readers to exotic places with his sumptuous details, immersing us in different cultural traditions. We get to experience a Japanese tea ceremony and a Beijing opera, learn about the Zen notion of sudden awakening called satori, we’re instructed deadly fighting methods such as the leopard paw and hoda korosu, and taught how to play a strategic board game called Go, whose concept Nicholai relies on for survival. Seeing how Go helps Nicholai always stay one step ahead of his opponents made me want to try playing it myself.

Winslow’s descriptions of Saigon also made me long for the place I once called home. The city in the early ’50s is different from the one I knew twenty years later, but some things remained the same—Cholon, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the following scene:

Vietnamese police, in their distinctive white uniforms, stoically struggled to manage the swirling Citroën and Renault autos, cyclo-pousses, Vespa scooters, and swarms of bicycles that competed for the right-of-way in a chaos that was a true mixture of the French and Asian styles of driving. Honking horns, jingling bells, and shouts of good-natured abuse in French, Vietnamese, and Chinese contributed to an urban cacophony.

Child street vendors darted and dodged through the traffic to sell newspapers, bottles of orange soda, or cigarettes to customers momentarily stuck in a jam, or sitting at a café table, or just walking down the busy sidewalks.

Winslow has clearly done meticulous research but made one mistake regarding Vietnamese cuisine. A cook makes something called nouc mom, described as “the Vietnamese fish soup that was a staple of the peasant diet.” This soup is mentioned several times and sounds delicious but there’s no such thing as nuoc mom. There is something called nuoc mam but it’s just fish sauce, a condiment like soy sauce. I think Winslow is referring instead to the soup called cháo cá.

My Vietnamese nitpickiness aside, Satori is something to experience, with Nicholai an intriguing guide to take us through it all. At the end, I had a flash of sudden awareness that told me I now have to read Shibumi.

Nerd verdict: Culturally rich Satori

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  • This was my first experience with Winslow’s writings. The fact that he was able to transport me to a completely different & unfamiliar country was what made me appreciate this book even more.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I really enjoyed the details about Tokyo and Beijing, too. I love learning things about other cultures.

    • Corto says:

      Dear Pop Culture Nerd,

      Quite bothering to read your review when you announce from the start that you have not read Shibumi!

      Satori presents an interest for millions of readers BECAUSE it is supposed to be a prequel to Shibumi! Shibumi was an “exercice de style” by Trevanian to create the best novel in this genre. And he succeeded.

      Satori is a bit of a pale copy of Shibumi but Don Winslow does not have Trevanian’s skills. One important miss in Satori is the lack of humour which was so important in Shibumi. I believe as well that Don Winslow was unable to assimilate the main characters personas both in Nicholai Hel and Maurice de Lhandes….

      The book is nevertheless entertaining and I won’t hide my pleasure at reading this book…..will it remain as one of my favorites? no. I wish so much that Trevanian had taken the time to write another book on Nicholai hel’s search for Shibumi….

      Conclusion: Read Shibumi if you havent read it… the same genre, I would advertise another book: Thai Horse by William Diehl

  • Jen Forbus says:

    I had to chuckle a little at how differently we see Winslow. One of my only criticisms of Winslow has been his tendency to include more detail than necessary. I found this especially so in CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, not so much in the Boone books. And unlike the general consensus, SAVAGES was probably my least favorite of Winslow’s book. It may have some to do with the fact I listened to the audio, but definitely not entirely.

    That almost makes it sound like I don’t like Winslow, but in fact I love his work. I just found it interesting how we can glean different things from the same writer.

    I’m so glad he took on this project. I think it’s another example of his ability to stretch beyond the comfortable. He’s showcased his amazing talents in a completely new dimension.

    And definitely check out SHIBUMI!!

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      This is why I love discussing books with people—to hear different perspectives. If everyone agreed on everything, it’d be boring.

      I’m glad Winslow did this, too, because I’m all for people taking risks and stretching their talents. If an author keeps pumping out the same old stuff year after year, I’d stop reading.

  • le0pard13 says:

    Excellent review, Elyse. Shimbumi was one of those seminal bestsellers of the late 70s that was a must read for my gen. So when one of my fave authors was picked to write the prequel, it instantly became one of my most anticipated novels for this year — I’m even listening to the audiobook of Shimbumi for my re-read right now (thanks so much, Jen). Satori is now on-deck.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      As I said to Jen above, I’m happy Winslow was picked for this. At the very least, I hope it gains him the following he deserves. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Satori the audiobook.

  • Lauren says:

    Shibumi is a must read. The only reasons I haven’t cracked my copy of Satori is I still can’t decide whether to re-read Shibumi first or after. The other is that I want to save it. For what, I don’t know. I keep thinking “Oh, I’ll read it on vacation.” Then I try to remember the last time I took a vacation and realize that idea is a non-starter.

    Funny your different thoughts about DW’s writing than Jen’s. I generally don’t like a lot of exposition and description and that’s one of the reasons I love DW as I’ve always found his work leaner than most (though I do find him getting more ‘meaty’ – Savages aside – in his later work). Jen has a different take, which I love. And Shibumi was long/descriptive and I think that’s another reason I hesitate to pick up Satori.

    Thanks for the great review!

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Satori is more descriptive than Winslow’s last few books but the descriptions are rich and interesting. I prefer action to exposition—my favorite style is exposition via action—but after the initial adjustment, I appreciated that I had to be more patient with this book. I shouldn’t rush through a book about achieving a certain Zen state! If you loved Shibumi, you should probably read this to see how Nicholai became the person he is.

  • Jann says:

    Great review Elyse! When I read Shibumi way back when, it had such an impact on me that I still fall back on it as my all time favorite book. Can’t wait to read Satori now – I love Winslow, but agree with Jen that he tends to be too wordy at times. I recall the Crais comment that some of the best advise he recieved (from Elmore Leonard?) was to take out all the words the readers will skip over. That being said, a great story teller is just that, even if I skip over the extraneous words.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Been hearing such great things about this one, but my OCD won’t let me read it without checking out Shibumi first. Funny though, like Jen I also was not overly enamored with Savages (didn’t dislike it, but after all the fuss thought, “Meh.”) and therefore not keen to leap into his next work. Knowing Satori is more fleshed out makes me willing to give it a go… after I read Shibumi. 😉

  • Poncho says:

    Great review, Elyse! I confess that I’ sort of a Winslow fan, even though I’ve only read two of his novels (number to be changed pretty soon). You got me interested in Satori and the book it’s (sort of) based in. Just hoping to get them soon!


  • EIREGO says:

    I love Don Winslow. That said, I DID NOT read California Fire and Life. I started with his Boone series and moved skipped around quite a bit. SAVAGES was awesome. Living in SoCA, I KNOW these people. They might not be my best friends, but I KNOW them. Winslow got it perfect! I hope Hollywood doesn’t make something like a Point Break movie out of it, but it blows my mind that no one has grabbed the book for the big screen. Much better than the stuff hitting screens of late. Okay, I’m off track here….Back to SATORI.

    When I saw that Winslow was going to write in the vein of someone else, my first question was WHY?! His early stuff might not grab everyone, but Savages was awesome. I read Satori with no expectations. I have not read Shibumi while I am curious now, I couldn’t understand why Winslow would write a book in which the first action sequence doesn’t happen until page 43. It is over so quickly, I thought about returning the book and waiting for the next actual Winslow novel. It meandered for me until Hel gets to Bejing where it finally started to kick in for me. Overall, I liked it, but it felt dusty as though it was an old paperback copy of a great novel that was great a really long time ago. The ending left me wishing the journey had been longer, but I guess that is why this is a prequel.

    SIDE NOTE: I’m not Vietnamese, but I LOVE Vietnamese food. A good bowl of Pho is a somewhat religious experience for me. The description of that soup, nouc mom, had me salivating, but I had never heard of it. I thought Winslow meant the the condiment nouc mam (which reeks to high heaven, but is great in so many dishes). So, stupid me…I actually took the book, with the passage in which he describes the dish, to my favorite Pho 999 establishment. They laughed at me. No idea what I was referring to.

    Thanks for the review, PCN.

  • Paulette Feeney says:

    ok…three and a half hours of my life I will never get back. Shibumi is in this house, garage, basement — somewhere! Must reread! Then on to Satori. Thank you for the fabulous review, Elyse. Got my giggle on stand-by for “play night.”

  • Good review. SATORI is on my nightstand but I confess I’ve been a little leery of it. Much as I’ve enjoyed the Winslow books I’ve read, I’ve been worried about how much he would be channeling Trevanian’s voice. I’ve not read SHIBUMI and I thought I had not read any Trevanian, but after thinking on it for a while, I realized that a *very* long time ago (right after the movie came out) I tried to read EIGER SANCTION and found it tedious.

    Jen F, at first I found SAVAGES a little difficult to follow in audio. Once I’d read the print version, the audio was much more comprehensible and I enjoyed both.

  • Donna says:

    Ok, I read Trevanian’s books (didn’t know his real name) way back when. How did I miss SHIBUMI? Well, now that it’s on my TBR list I’ll read SATORI first. Loved your review, Elyse. Am a fan of Winslow’s. Did read CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE. The narration was different from any I’d read before but once into, realized it made the book all the more entertaining. And do wish he’d do a sequel to DAWN PATROL. Sure liked that character. Winslow knows how to hook a reader and reel them in.

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