Monday, December 22, 2008

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine - 288 pgs

Book CoverWhen a journalist contacts Faith Severn in the interest of writing a book about the execution of her aunt Vera Hillyard, Faith slowly reveals and unravels the story of the Hillyard family complete in it's complicities and claustrophobias. After her parents' death, Vera leaves her young son and military husband in the care of others and undertakes the role of mother to her younger sister, Eden. Vera and Eden's relationship is extremely close and secretive, often excluding all other parties. Living in virtual isolation during World War II, Vera makes Eden her top priority and constant concern, and becomes a profoundly obsessive and controlling woman. It's here that Faith spends many vacations and holidays, enduring Vera's casual cruelty and myriad insecurities while secretly idolizing the young and beautiful Eden. As time moves on and Faith grows older, she witnesses multiple changes in Vera and Eden's relationship, the return of Vera's son, Francis (a merciless young man), and Eden's eventual flight from the nest. Even so, things are not what they seem in the Hillyard house, and the family secrets will eventually spark an explosive, painful conclusion that leaves the reader sorting through the myriad clues to find a definitive answer to this intensely satisfying psychological thriller. Is Vera's madness really self-induced, or does it come from a more sinister direction? What are the circumstances behind her execution, and what part does her family truly play?

This was a fascinating and, eventually, quite devastating book. The author has a way of laying out the story and prose in a quietly thorough way, keeping the more disquieting elements couched within the normal everyday attributes of a wartime family. Knowing that a murder had occurred but not knowing the circumstances surrounding it, nor even who the victim was, was a particularly interesting way to tell this story. The technique had me reading with trepidation to discover where the cracks would appear, and how the murder would eventually take place. The story has an aura of foreboding attached to it, it was ominous from it's skeleton to it's details, haunting in a wonderful way. Because Vera was not a particularly pshycopathic person, the murder behind her execution seemed all the more interesting. Yes, she was restrictive and cold, and it was very clear that she was also repressed and secretive, at times she could be embarrassingly hysterical, but her character also seemed to be very controlled and conscious of propriety and modulated. Reading along I became convinced that this murder was an act of desperation and madness, instead of an act of calculated cruelty.

In fact, all the characters in this book were exquisitely portrayed. From the obnoxious and perverse Francis to the furtive and beautiful Eden and the reluctant and inquisitive Faith, each character was finely detailed and and exceptionally rendered. It felt like I knew these people, knew how they would react, where their buttons were and could see what would push them. There was a tremendous amount of exposition given over to these characters, a lot of time spent on the mundane and everyday, but it was far from boring. In fact it was a very illuminating and clever way to get the reader invested in the drama of the storyline, and the eventual destruction of a family.

The story dealt with many sensitive issues, and without giving away the mysteries of the story, it would be hard to touch on and identify them all, but the one that stuck out was the repression and emotional constraint of those in England during that time. It was evident in Vera's entire character, in her sister Eden's choice of lifestyle, and eventually in Faith's reticence to tell the story of her aunt. Repression ran like a thick vein down this haunting and dark story.

Another thing that I liked about this story were the atmospheric touches. There was much discussion of war time rationing and the procurement of luxurys items, such as food and cosmetics, during the lean times of war. I thought this was an interesting touch that gave the story believability and flavor. It seemed that the author accounted for all the variables in this time period and those minute touches really amplified the credibility of the story.

The conclusion of the story was also handled brilliantly. It skipped the exposition and definition and instead recounted and laid bare all the facts for the reader to deduce the motives and culpability of this murder. By doing this, it refrained from passing judgment on the killer and let the reader see that there was more to the story than just the black and white of the slaying. As in some real-life murders, the details were murky, the facts sometimes cloudy. One could almost discount Vera's madness and responsibility, could see from the facts alone that she was vindicated. Almost. And in the end, that is what this story came down to. The confusion and reaction of a somewhat normal woman, spurred into to a hideous act that forever changed the landscape of her family's life.

If you can't tell by now, I thought this book was superb. It had an intensity and control that I truly appreciated. I loved the meandering way that the story was fleshed out, and felt that in this way the suspense was built into an almost unbearable measure. I had heard so many good things about this book, and was so excited to read it. In no way did it disappoint. Though it is written by a mystery writer, this book is more of a psychological suspense story. A very intelligent and thought provoking read. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones - 432 pgs

Book CoverA'isha bint Abi Bakr has known the prophet Muhammad all her life; in fact, he was present at her birth. When her father, a close ally to Muhammad, decides to cement his loyalty and friendship to the prophet by betrothing A'isha to him when she is just 6 years old, her fate as his "child-bride" begins. Though A'isha will not be married to Muhammad for three years, her betrothal to the prophet brings many unusual changes into the life of the young girl. Beginning with an unusually early purdah (forced segregation from the opposite sex), A'isha discovers that life as Muhammad's favored wife will not be an easy task. Not only must she give up her freedom and taste for adventure, she must navigate a path to her husband's heart among a plethora of other women who also call Muhammad "husband," and forsake the man who is her true heart's desire. As A'isha grows from child to woman, the new religion of Islam, under Muhammad's care, grows with her. The Jewel of Medina is the little-known story of the woman behind Allah's chosen messenger; Here are A'isha bint Bakr's desires, disappointments and dreams for all to see, woven amongst the inception of one of the worlds most formidable and misunderstood religions.

After hearing all the hype surrounding this book, I was expecting a tome filled with controversy. I wasn't sure what it would deliver. Would it be a blasphemous portrayal of the foremost man of Islam? Would it be slanderous or rife with sexual impropriety? What could possibly be so contentious about this book? So, I read it, and what I found was a bit disappointing. The book, although interesting and timely, was a bit heavy-handed and trite. It seems that the elements that were most upsetting must have been Muhammad's taking so many wives. His appetite for women and marriage seemed at times almost comic and unbelievable. If a new woman was described in the narrative, chances are that in a few pages Muhammad would take her as a wife. This portrayal made Muhammad seem like an unscrupulous and lewd old man. I believe that was one of the reasons it was so hard for me to see this character as a great leader to many people. I just couldn't believe a man who had such tremendous sexual appetites was a holy and revered man. In a way, this depiction made Muhammad look manipulative and crafty. For example, when he heard the voice of God commanding him to take more wives, he claimed his need for more women only had to do with strategic alliances for Islam. But tied up in these protestations was the story of a lusty man amassing a harem of women. Which brings me to my next point: This unabashed parade of new wives seemed to be the center of the story.

Instead of character or story development, it seemed that the story was about many women fighting over one man. The story had no other underlying plot than the jealousies and competitions of A'isha and the rest of the women. Instead of relating the story of one woman's love and relationship with a charismatic leader, what I got instead was a novel full of infighting, insecurity and envy. When I realized that this book was not going to be the serious piece of semi-history that I had hoped for, I was able to take it for what it was and begin to enjoy the ride. As far as historical romance goes, this wasn't a bad book. The problem is that with all the attention surrounding this book, readers may be expecting a more factual or enlightening interpretation of Islam and it's first lady, when in fact this is more of a book filled with unrequited romantic intrigue.

I also felt that the book contained a weak interpretation of Muhammad. As a reader, I never saw him as a forceful personal leader. In fact, he seemed a bit wishy-washy and irresolute. Without belaboring the point, the fact was that he was so busy with all of his wives that he was never seen in any other capacity. Another thing that I noticed was that the book also had almost no atmospheric touches, so it seemed that there was a scarcity of historical or cultural flavor in the narrative. The effect of this void was that it made the story more bland and forgettable than other historical novels that I have read.

Although this review paints a somewhat bleak picture, The Jewel of Medina was not a terrible book. At times it was entertaining and exciting, if only to answer the questions of the romantic quandaries in the story. The book also had a nice flow, with little to no awkwardness in the elements of the storytelling. Though I felt that the story was a little common and corny, I also thought that it was executed fairly well. While I did end up somewhat enjoying it, that was only after a huge adjustment in my expectations. The main problem was that I just couldn't lose myself in the story because it seemed farcical and unimportant. I thought the book would be inspirational and moving, but in the end it wasn't. I think that is one of the problems with books that are just so hyped: there is bound to be disappointment unless the book is absolutely brilliant. After all this, I would still recommend this book to those who like historical romance and wouldn't mind taking a chance on a first time author.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Key West: A Comprehensive Guide to Florida's Southernmost City by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

Book CoverOrganized in a neatly compartmental way, this comprehensive guide to Key West, one of the Tourist Town series of guides, is an informative and useful guide to finding the area's attractions, accommodations and dining spots. In addition to being a one-stop guide for anyone traveling to Key West, the book also contains a section devoted to area orientation and an extensive chapter on the history of this popular destination.

I really liked the last segment of the book which is comprised of a few sample itineraries to get you started on enjoying what Key West has to offer to its many visitors. Although the book is small, it's filled with information packaged in bite size snippets that encapsulate all you will need to know when visiting these spots, including addresses, phone numbers, and pricing references. The only thing the book was lacking was a selection of color photographs detailing the islands attractions. Instead there are a few black and white photos of the most notorious locations and aspects of Key West, but the book had such a conversational and flavorful tone that it was easy to overlook this small flaw to appreciate the greater aspects of the guide. In a charming aside to the book, the opening pages contain a few tips on how to be as ecologically friendly as possible while vacationing. I found the tips to be very simple ways to be socially responsible while not being too complicated or onerous. Living in Central Florida, the Keys make a great weekend getaway destination for me and my family. Having this book for future vacations will be a great way to maximize our enjoyment in all that the area has to offer.

The publishers of this book have several other guides in the same vein, for areas such as Myrtle Beach, Atlantic City, and Jackson Hole. If you are travelling to a popular tourist destination in the near future, make sure to check out the Tourist Town series. They make a great traveling companion.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay - 320 pgs

Book CoverSarah's Key is the story of one young girl's experience during the roundups of Jews in France during 1942, while also telling the story of Julia Jarmond, the journalist who pulls Sarah's story out of obscurity and finds the girl's connections to her own life. The story begins with the terror that Sarah and her family face as the French police begin to scour neighborhoods in order to gather the Jewish residents for deportation. During the frantic visit by police, Sarah's four-year-old brother hides in a secret cupboard, refusing to come out. Sarah convinces little Michel to stay put and be quiet, locking him into the cupboard, with hopes that the roundup will be a short affair. The rest of the family are then taken to an outdoor stadium to wait for deportation to various death camps, leaving little Michel helpless and alone, locked in a cupboard to which only Sarah has the key. As the small family faces the horrors of the roundup, Sarah is haunted by the loss of Michel and vows to return to her home and rescue him. Her journey through the war and her eventual fate take her to places that even she would never expect. The other half of the story focuses on journalist Julia's marital struggles with her husband Bertrand. Though they love one another, their lives seem to be going in separate directions, and Bertrand is far from a doting partner. As Julia begins to realize that her path in life is slowly diverging from Bertrand's in almost every way, she discovers that Bertrand and his family share a personal connection with Julia's new story: the Jewish roundup of 1942. And it is this story that draws Julia closer to the existence and struggles of Sarah.

Although this story began as a parallel narrative between Sarah and Julia, about halfway through the author dropped the alternating viewpoints and began to focus solely on Julia's story. I think this weakned the story and sacrificed much of its urgency. Sarah's struggle was poignant and moving, and when it ended the whole rest of the book took different direction, a more soap-operaish flavor. Although I was interested in Julia's marriage woes, I found Sarah's story more compelling and was a bit non-plussed that that thread had been lost. Some bits of the story seemed a little far-fetched, such as Julia's all-consuming passion in finding out what had happened to Sarah and her family. At times it seemed that her reasoning for this was slightly melodramatic, and that made it harder to buy into as a reader. Julia had a myriad of problems going on in her personal life, yet she shoved everything away to focus on an unknown girl's fate in wartime France? It just didn't ring true.

Although some parts of this story were awkward, there were some great aspects of the book as well. I found that the shorter, alternating chapters created a palpable tension in both story lines. It seemed that the author gave just a little in each section, teasing out both story lines to their fullest effect. I also liked the character portrayals: there were a range of personalities to get to know, and they were all multi-dimensional. For example, though Julia's husband Bertrand was an insensitive brute, he had sides of him that made him at least a little sympathetic to the reader. Julia wasn't painted with the "perfect" paintbrush either. She had moments of unlikablity and I found that this endeared me to her character more readily, as she seemed like more of a real person. Though this story had its ups and downs, Sarah's portions were handled expertly. In attempting to give these lost forgotten children of history a voice, the author did wonderful work through the story of Sarah. I read with tension and disbelief the atrocities that were forced on these people, and cried, realizing that for many, this was their reality and their demise. The cruelty of the perpetrators of these acts amazed and saddened me, and I found myself caught up in the dread and fear that marked their fate. Sarah's remarkable story was the lifeblood of this book, and though at times it was painful and penetrating, it was also told very impressively.

Though I wish that this book would have remained a parallel narrative and that more of the story would have been told from Sarah's point of view, I did like Julia's portions and found myself getting emotionally invested in her story. Both stories, though very different, were engrossing in their own ways. Despite the fact that I struggled with issues of believability in the Julia storyline, I did eventually begin to care for her as a character and hoped that her story would end satisfactorily. On the other hand, Sarah's story grabbed me from the first page and never let up all the way through, and it is because of this brilliant bit of storytelling that that this book was ultimately a winner.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Freeman Walker by David Allen Cates - 304 pgs

Book Cover James Gates is a young boy, son of a slave woman and a plantation owner. When he is 7 years old, his father gives him the gift of freedom. After a few short lessons in the ways of life hinging on the fact that life is not fair, his father bundles him off to England for a good education and a chance to live a free life. James spends a handful of years at his privileged boarding school, until unexpected events force him into a more gritty life among the masses. Coming of age in England as a ward of a workhouse, James devises a way to escape England and moves back to the United States, where he desires to find and free his mother. Although he goes into this endeavor with good intentions, he is soon caught up in the excitement of the Civil War and longs to be a soldier putting his freedom and life on the line for the glory and adventure of combat. However, things don't go as planned, and James (who goes through several name changes in the book from James Gates to Jimmy Gates, to Freeman Walker, a name symbolic of his journey) becomes by turns a slave soldier, a miner and prospector, a homeless derelict, and eventually the secretary of a mentally questionable Governor. Through all of his adventures, James questions the meanings and implications of freedom in all it's forms.

Well. I don't really know where to begin with this book. Aside from the fact that it had virtually no plot to speak of, it was also odd in that it wasn't really a character driven novel either. The protagonist was a curiously flat character. This is not to say that he didn't have desires or ideals, or manifest thought processes; it was more that these didn't ring true and felt somewhat hollow. He seemed to change personalities based on the situation he was in and as a result I never felt as though I knew this man, or that I could trust his actions or reactions. Even though he was the star character, it was very hard to get a clear impression of him or what he stood for. His character instead seemed only a to be backdrop on which to hang moral expositions and "messages," although it is not really clear what those messages are meant to be. The gist I got was something about the old adage of freedom not being free, or maybe something about the elusiveness of freedom. It may have even been how the interpretation of freedom is fluid. The problem was that the book had too many of these types of messages, and none of them was very clear. Add to this the author's annoying habit of interpreting his own symbolism, the weird amalgam of strange plot elements, the unsuccessful use of magical realism, and the author's habit of fleshing out the story with minor vulgarity, and you may be able to see why this was not a happy reading experience. The book seemed to take the form of loosely related incidents stretching over a period of time, all involving the same character, which is not the same thing as a story with a definable plot and characters that you can relate to. The conclusion of the novel was also disappointing. It wasn't very believable or convincing and kind of came out of left field. By the time it came around to that point, I wasn't expecting very much, and in that area at least I wasn't disappointed.

Although I was initially excited about reading this story told in a viewpoint that I am not familiar with, I was very disappointed in this book. I think that perhaps if the book attempted to tell a straight forward story instead of making it a plethora of messages and symbolism, I would have enjoyed it much more and perhaps been better able to recommend it to others. As it was, the story started off interestingly, but quickly took a steep nose dive, never to recover. The idea behind this book was a good one, but I think the author failed in the direction and the execution.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival by Owen Matthews - 320 pgs

Book CoverStalin's Children is the story of one family's unique experiences amid the changing social and political sphere of Russia. Encompassing Russia's history from the 1920s onwards, Matthews acquaints us with three generations of his family who experienced extreme persecution and overwhelming odds, each bearing witness to pre- and post-Stalinist Russia. The memoir begins with the story of Boris Bibikov, a prominent Russian party member in the 1920s. Bibikov and his small family lived in relative comfort and plenty, taking full advantage that his status afforded him, until, like so many others, he was accused of anti-Party sentiments. After his arrest and imprisonment, his wife and two young daughters were left to fend for themselves. Eventually the girls were taken to a state-run orphanage after their mother was also imprisoned. It is here that the girls, Lyudmilla and Lenina, became separated. Lenina eventually moved in with relatives, and Lyudmilla remained a ward of the state until her adulthood, in essence becoming one of Stalin's many children. After many heartrending circumstances, including the orphans' harrowing escape from the Germans invasion of the city in the early days of WWII, near starvation, and serious disease, the sisters were once again reunited by miracle and chance. Although their years of separation and abandonment left indelible marks upon them for all time, they remained optimistic.

The second section of the book tells of the love affair between Lyudmilla and Mervin, the author's parents. Mervyn, a British russophile, begins a scholarly career in Moscow, living his dream of immersing himself in Russia. When Lyudmilla and Mervyn meet, it is clear to both that they should be together. But after Mervyn rejects the courting of KGB officials in their attempts to recruit him into their organization, he becomes persona non grata to the Russian government and is deported. He must leave Lyudmilla behind in Russia with promises that he will return soon to marry her. What follows is the couple's anguished battle to attain Lyudmilla's right to marry a foreigner and leave the country. Peppered throughout this tale is the author's own story of returning to a Russia in the 1990s that has changed in so many ways, yet in some ways remains the same.

This book was very impressive. From the distinct and eloquent nature of the author's ability to express his family's story, to the staunch and ardent persistence of the players involved, I found myself completely captivated by this memoir. Not only were the stories of his family very moving, the author has a very encompassing and instructive way of conveying the politics of Russia from the early 1900s until today. The book was informative and dealt with a vast amount of history, but it was not sluggish or boring. Each era of political change in the country was illustrated not only in terms of what was going on in the government, but also in how these changes affected the people living amongst the tumult of their oppression. In addition, the shifts in the narrative melding the past and present were deftly handled, blending the stories of each of these generations into a panoramic view of life in Soviet Russia. Although at times the author's sentiments appear somewhat dark and maudlin, I would argue that his attitude fits perfectly with the story he tells. Although there are small triumphs and large victories, there is also a sense of grim strife throughout the story. In particular, I found the hardships that Lyudmilla endured as a ward of the state to be very tragic and distressing, but I truly marveled at her optimism and perseverance. She had a quintessentially hardy spirit that I found remarkable. In addition, the struggles that Lyudmilla and Mervin face in their efforts to be married were by turns bitter and poignant. I admired the strength and conviction of these two lovers, fighting with indomitable resoluteness for their relationship. I read with mixed emotions the joys and disappointments of the couple, and felt that the inclusion of pieces of actual love letters between the two was a a brilliant touch that gave Lyudmilla and Mervyn a real sense of humanity. I liked this book for so many reasons. From the soulfulness of the characters, to the conversational style of the history, I found much here to be impressed with. This is not only a story of history and politics, but a story of people. People with hopes and fears and dreams that were expertly captured by the author.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a curiosity about Russia. It is easily the best and most concise history of the times and people that I have ever read. The bonus of reading this for the history is that you will also get the very wonderfully rendered story of the people inside this country, and the sacrifices and joys that shaped their lives. Filled with unforgettable characters and relateable history, this book was a great read. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shadow of Colossus by by T.L Highley - 400 pgs

Book CoverTessa is a hetaera, a courtesan paid to provide company, advice, and favors to the patron who pays her handler the highest price. Though Tessa is a paid companion, she has a unique position in Grecian society. As she is partnered with powerful men, she becomes a sounding board and confidant to them, subtly influencing their opinions on society and the area's politics. Although Tessa has a powerful voice in the community, which is rare for a woman, she doesn't have what she desires most: her freedom. Living with the churlish and abusive Glaucus, her current patron, Tessa's life is filled with bitterness and anger. After a particularly troubling evening with Glaucus that ends in a violent argument, Tessa is witness to an accident that leaves him dead. Now she must find a way to escape the blame for his death and keep it a secret from the powerful men who rely on him. As she maneuvers these intrigues, she meets Nicos, a servant recently hired by the now-dead Glaucus. As Nikos moves into the household, Tessa finds that she can't hide her secret from him and must decide if Nikos will eventually be a help or a hindrance. But all is not what it seems, as many of the people Tessa must deal with have hidden agendas, malevolent plans, and secret identities. Tessa must navigate a dangerous backdrop of deception and naked ambition to find her way to freedom and a new life. While doing this, she must also learn to free herself from the emotional chains that her profession has placed upon her.

Although the first few pages of the story seemed pretty intriguing, I quickly lost patience with this book. One of the reasons was the unrealistically shallow character portrayals. All of the characters were one-dimensional and simplistic. There just wasn't a lot going on with any of these people mentally or verbally, and it felt like I was reading about really rough stock characters instead of people who I was supposed to sympathize with or feel for in any way. Though the story itself was interesting, I never really cared for any of the players.

Another thing I wasn't prepared for were the traditional Christian messages and values throughout the book. I read this book not knowing much about it other than the premise, and was a little put off by some of the sentiments expressed throughout the story. Although it wasn't annoying, there was some blatant proselytizing in addition to some very irksome opinions scattered along the story. In one instance, it was posited that it was a woman's highest imperative to produce offspring; if she didn't, her life didn't amount to very much. I found that passage alone left me feeling really uncharitable towards the book. Had I known that this book was a kind of religious platform, I would have probably had a different opinion of it, because I would have been prepared for it. As it was, the religious messages weren't pervasive or preachy, but they still felt cumbersome and stood out blatantly from the rest of the story.

Lastly, I thought that the writing style was somewhat unvarnished and simple. The sentence construction in most of the book was very basic and unchallenging. I think a little more weight and artfulness in the prose would have shifted the narrative onto a more complex level. Lacking this, some elements that could have been powerful seemed trivial and lacked depth. Overall, though, I found the plot the most interesting thing about the book. Although it only covered a few days, there was much intrigue and imagination in that respect. Despite my other problems with the story, I found myself drawn to the outcome of the personal and political situations that the characters faced. The author's ability to involve fantastically dramatic elements in the story kept me engrossed with the story itself, despite the other drawbacks. The book had a great premise and the possibility of rich characters, but the mechanics of the writing defeated all that.

I think this book would be a good choice for those who enjoy Christian themed historical fiction, or for a young adult audience. As long as the reader doesn't expect too much from the story and can appreciate it for what it is, I think that they can avoid the disappointment that I had with the book. This is supposedly the first book in a planned series called the Seven Wonders. I can't really say that I will be reading any of the others, though the author does include a sneak peek into the first chapter of the next book in the end of Shadow of Colossus. For those who aren't sure about reading the book, perhaps a brief read through of this section might give you an idea of whether you would like the book or the series.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh - 368 pgs

Book CoverWhen Charles Ryder arrives at Brideshead after an absence of many years, he loses himself in reminiscences of the once grand home and residence of the intriguing Flyte family. Charles shares the story of his all-encompassing and complex relationship with the Flytes, which germinates with his college relationship with the eldest son, Sebastian, at Oxford. While sharing his opulent college days with Sebastian, the two become connoisseurs of fine food, good conversation, and especially in Sebastian's case, alcohol. Charles becomes unwittingly seduced by the luxurious lifestyle Sebastian leads, and although Sebastian tries to avoid the intrusion of his family into the friendship, Charles becomes enmeshed with them, growing increasingly entangled with their religious proclivities and emotional adversities. Eventually Charles moves past his friendship with Sebastian, who is on a course of self-destruction. Although he tries to leave Sebastian behind, his ties with the stifling family remain strong, and his ardor focuses on more accessible targets. As the glamor and artifice of the Flytes begins to fall away, Charles discovers his own moral awakenings, leaving him to reconcile the differences between himself and the Flytes as well as the similarities.

This book is a stunning piece of literature. From the rich language to the captivating story it tells, it is easy to understand why this book remains a classic today. Though the story is arguably about one young man's immersion in a very unique family, there exists, parallel to the plot, the subject of divine grace and the examination of Catholicism as a moral compass which may shape even those who are not of the faith. The book also deals with the nostalgia for the British nobility, the disillusionment at the passage of youth, and speaks specifically about the many forms of love that assail us as human beings throughout life. The remarkable thing about all of this is that it is not done in a heavy-handed and cardboard way. It is not pounded into you with antiquated and stuffy language or sentimental observations that render the story artificially affected. Instead, there is a constant pushing and pulling of ideas, and a honest portrayal of relationships, religion, and youth that is not afraid to show the entire truth, warts and all. Aside from liking this book for the story that it told, I found it was engaging and entertaining in other aspects. The prose was lyrical while still being a little snarky and standoffish, giving it an offbeat charm and a knowing voice. When I had finished reading and closed the book, I found that there was so much more to think about and explore within the world presented to me. I looked back at scenes that were poignant, and was able to see that besides the obvious emotional impact there was a great deal more hiding within the narrative. Later, I found concepts that hadn't initially occurred to me, and I mused about the authors intentions with the direction of the story, and if indeed there was a subtle agenda. The book had a wonderful mood about it as well. The atmosphere was one of somberness, but it was not overwhelmingly dark and depressive. Things seemed to have the perfect gravity, neither too comedic nor too dismal. This is not to say that this was an entirely dark book; there were some perfectly comedic and witty moments, but overall the tone of this book was more serious, lending it the ability to become profound. This may give the perception that this is a deep book. Yes and no. I would say that on one hand it is a very deep book, but it depends entirely on how you read it. If you are reading it for the pleasure of an interesting story, that is what you will get. If on the other hand you are reading it for a deeper meaning, that is there as well. What I find interesting is that these elements exist completely in harmony with each other, while also remaining separate entities.

I think the true measure of the success of this book is the fact that, although I have moved on to other books, I still find myself thinking about it. In quiet moments, I find myself plundering the depths of the story, eager to make more connections and relishing the moments and situations I found within the covers. The book had a powerful voice and message, and it was the ability of the author to show, not tell, his message that impressed and amazed me. The mechanics and eloquence of his ideas were equally impressive. Though the author's opinions may not be popular with every reader, and may even be contrary to those who are not particularly religious, the story and the execution are truly brilliant. This book was an exceptional and unexpected prize. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Guernica by Dave Boling - 384 pgs

Book CoverGuernica is an epic story of love, destruction and survival set amid the Spanish Civil War. It is the story of two families and three generations intertwined by love, honor and duty. It is the story of Justo Ansotegui, the strongest and most virile man in the village of Guernica. Justo rises from a young hardscrabble existence raising his brothers after the disappearance of his father, becoming a ranch owner and father in his early teens. After a touching courtship and wedding to the beautiful Mariangeles, Justo becomes the father of the spirited and vivacious Miren. Rolling through the years, we are privy to the love and devotion of Justo's family towards each other and their community, including the life and sacrifices of Justo's younger brother, Xabier, a man of the cloth. Here also are the Navarro brothers, both fishermen, who will leave their home to become very different, yet equally honorable men. As Francisco Franco, with assistance from the Germans, begins his takeover of Guernica with the intent of abolishing the Basque people and culture, life in the town become fraught with scarcity, fear and rumors. Each of the people we come to meet must adapt to a life filled with hardships among the menacing influences taking over their town. When the unthinkable happens and the German Luftwaffe bombs the town, life is forever changed and the survivors of the brutal attack must learn to endure and rebuild, gaining strength and shedding their weaknesses with only the help of one another. Peppered within this tale we get a glimpse of the famous painter Picasso and his artistic reaction to the bombing of Guernica, as well as the haunting account of commanding officer Wolfram von Richthofen, one of the men directly responsible for the bombing. Mixing the fictional with the tangible, Guernica tells the tragic story of one of the most terrible events in history, taking the reader on a moving ride of loss and redemption.

This book really started off with a bang. Reading the first section, I found myself curious at the plight of Justo, and wondering what led him to the place he inhabited in the opening of this story. I enjoyed the detail of the family interactions and the concise yet revealing way that the author wove so much of the history of the town and its inhabitants within the story.The many viewpoints and distinct characters made the plot very involving. Some of the best sections in the book were the reflections and reactions involving Xabier, the town's priest and Justo's brother. From his viewpoint I was able to really envision the carnage inflicted on that terrible day and see the heartrending atrocity that was inflicted upon those unfortunate townspeople. The drama of the aftermath wasn't harped upon or made morbid; instead it was explained with subtlety and a depth of feeling that made the characters and their reactions very plausible and human. Though I thought this was a tale well told, the stories told from the perspectives of Picasso and von Richthofen were a bit jarring and not well integrated. I believe that the author had something important to say with the inclusion of these passages, but the voice and message was somewhat dampened by the almost mechanical embedding of these elements. I think it is always hard to add real historical figures into a work that is primarily fiction and have them blend in seamlessly. In this case, I didn't feel that it was very successful. Adding to this, the lack of information regarding the politics of the bombing of Guernica left me with many unanswered questions, and it hampered my understanding of the event. I felt that a little more exposition on the causes and strategies of the war that precluded the bombing would have been helpful to understand the full impact of what happened in the town. For this reason, I felt that the sections regarding the family were more connecting and emotionally charged, while the other parts of the book were a bit less interesting to read.

Although there were components of this story that didn't really work for me, overall I was very moved by this book and thought it was a success. The author mentions in an afterword that the politics had been deliberately left out in order to give the reader an idea of how this bombing would have appeared to the townspeople, who had no idea of why it happened. Looking at it in that framework, this becomes a story of a town and a story of individuals dealing with the unthinkable and the unexpected. As a reader though, I wanted more. I really wanted to understand why this happened and to see the play unfold behind the curtain. But ultimately, I did care for the characters and wonder in what direction in life they were heading, and how they would get there. I got so involved with them, that in the end, I could overlook the difficulties I had with the story, and value my time with them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Night of Flames: A Novel of World War II by Douglas W. Jacobson - 384 pgs

Book CoverIn 1939, Hitler's forces invaded Poland, creating havoc and destruction throughout the country with air raids, infantry and tank operations. Many citizens joined the resistance, secretly carrying out operations aimed at hindering the German war machine while aiding the Allies in any way possible. On this backdrop we meet Anna and Jan Kopernik, a Polish couple separated by the war. Jan is a Major in the Polish Calvary, stationed in western Poland very close to the German border, who eventually becomes a secret operative. After the invasion, Anna must flee alone to Belgium, reluctantly becoming part of the Belgian resistance. In their search to find each other amidst the frantic war, Anna and Jan will come face to face with the senseless death and tragic brutality that has overtaken their world. Surrounding Anna and Jan's adventure are the stories of the dozens of wartime heroes who risked their lives and freedom to root out the Germans from their countries, some quietly slipping into the night, and some paying the ultimate price.

Though the story in this book was very gripping and engaging, there were many areas that I thought the book could have been better. Firstly, the characters seemed somewhat wooden and unrealistic. Introspection by any of the characters was slim and sparse. They never reflected deeply, nor thought and let the reader see how their mind was working. It was all exposition and reaction, never anything substantial or meaningful. I felt like I didn't know any of the characters or the reasoning behind their actions, which cut me off from elements of the story. This, coupled with improbable dialogue, made the players seem unbelievable. Another problem was that many characters were mere stereotypes -- the histrionic war widow, the taciturn and emotionless soldier, the distant informer -- which made them seem like cardboard cut-outs instead of real people. I wanted to be able to connect with these people and their situation, but couldn't. I found that their personalities and behaviors made them remote and inaccessible. There wasn't enough meat there to really get into, and it affected my immersion in the story. Then there was the introduction of so many characters in such a short space of time. Many were only touched once and then forgotten. Others would be revisited long after a brief introduction, making it difficult to remember who was who and what situation they had came from. The effect was very cluttering and claustrophobic.

This was a big book, with big ideas and a lot to say. The problem was, everything was crunched down and compacted. There were a lot of situations that I felt should have been more deeply covered, and story lines that were left cold. In particular, there was one point where the storyline jumped from 1939 to 1943 with no mention of what had happened in between, making the story seem a bit disjointed. I would have liked to know how the characters had fared and what had happened during this huge space of time, and what accomplishments had been made on the war front. Another irritating aspect of the story was all the coincidences that took place. The timing and situations were designed to make the ending tie up neatly and quickly. The coincidental aspect of so much of the story was off-putting.

There were points to praise though. The amount of historical detail and research that went into this story was impressive. I could tell by the authors confidence in the writing that he had done his homework regarding the multiple battles and significant aspects of this war. Also, there was a good amount of tautness in the storyline that kept my interest and kept me wondering about the outcomes of each specific engagement. Each mission was painted with great intensity and detail, stretching out to capture the imagination of the reader. As a story of war, I would consider this a very successful book. It had all the action and strategy, and combined with meticulous research, it kept packing punches. The human element though, was less developed and more troublesome.

I do think there are many who would enjoy this book. War enthusiasts, particularly of WWII, will get much from this novel, as well as those who are interested in well-dissected history. I learned a lot from this story, particularly about the Polish resistance and its many successful endeavors during the invasion. An interesting concept that in some instances was executed well, and in others was not.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Noris - 352 pgs

Book CoverThough almost everyone is familiar with depression, acedia is a much less well known affliction. Mostly a term used in the monastic community, acedia can be described as a type of emotional slothfulness. Everyday tasks become harder and more pointless to perform, and emotions are dulled almost to the point of desensitization. Acedia takes the form of an unsettled boredom that permeates every area of life, be it physical, emotional or social. In her new book, Kathleen Norris examines acedia in all it's mysterious forms, attempting to explain why it is different from depression and some of the ways that it can be dealt with. Interspersed with her reflections on the issue, we become familiar with the religious implications of acedia and get a crash course on the spiritual response to this ponderous problem. In addition, Norris chronicles her life with acedia and her relationship with her husband, who battled physical and mental illness. Part memoir, part reflection, Norris attempts to explain the emotional lassitude that so many suffer from and so few can name. With courage and determination she delves into her psyche and that of the community at large to engage and define a problem that defies drugs, therapy and advice.

In large part this book was theoretical and illusive. Not really recognized by the mental health community, acedia lies merely in the realm of speculation and experience. While the author's attempt to explain and understand this problem was interesting, many people to whom I mentioned the topic "acedia" gave me a blank stare and said they had never heard of it. This included a mental health professional who expressed interest in the book. Though this problem seems to be an unknown entity, Norris gives us a historical frame of reference for this malady and explains why it is no longer recognized in society. She encourages the reader to look at this problem in terms of a spiritual dissonance that can be corrected with reflection and prayer rather than medication and rationalization. As the book went on, though, there were a few things that stuck out. The first was that although an attempt was made for the book to be hopeful, it was not. The picture portrayed was not unlike the myth of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down over and over. The author seems to suggest that this affliction is doomed to be suffered over and over again, with different results from each self-administered treatment. Her own battle with this problem, she acknowledges, has been a lifetime struggle that she can never seem to overcome. Another issue that I came across was the implication that only those sufficiently pious would be able to overcome this problem. Many times her solution to acedia was prayer or spiritual reflection. While prayer is something that I do regularly, and does indeed benefit me tremendously, many people do not have the same feeling towards spiritual meditation. This makes her discourse a little alienating. With as many religious ideologies as there are out there, there are many people who don't ascribe to religion at all. To them, this book would be pointless. One can argue that most of those people wouldn't pick up this book, but the good points made in this book should be able to be shared by anyone affected by this problem. I think it is a bit dismissive to only examine one way of dealing with a problem. I am aware that this is the author's show, and it is her prerogative to handle her reflections in any way she would like, but the effect is a bit non-inclusive.

Despite these misgivings, I found that this book had a hypnotic quality to the writing that kept me wanting to explore further and delve deeper. Many of the passages had bits and snippets of prayers wrapped in, and some were moving and beautiful. I found many hidden gems among this book, new ways of looking at things, and reflections and connections that I would have never made without the author's introspective analysis. Her information had a way of winding around itself, coming back to the same points repeatedly, but this was not troublesome. In a way it was like a good speaker highlighting the same points in order to reaffirm their importance and drive home the message. The book was also very informative about the monastic community, its tenants and its values. There is no doubt in my mind that acedia exists, and that there is relief from this problem. I believe that the ability of this author to take a foreign and illusive concept and relate it in a way that everyone will recognize and understand is a great achievement.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives by Cheryl Jarvis - 240 pgs

Book CoverThe story told in The Necklace is both humbling and uplifting. After seeing a very expensive diamond necklace in the window of a local jewelery shop, Jonnell McLain convinces 12 other women to split the cost and share the ownership if it with her. What happens to the group of women and the community that surrounds them is as unexpected as it is interesting. The women are an unlikely bunch ranging from a shopaholic to a motorcycle riding, gun toting girl Friday, a farmer, and an interior designer. At first,the women have little in common other than the ownership of the necklace. Though from very different backgrounds and social classes, they begin to hold meetings once a month. The first meetings are designed to outline sharing guidelines and inconsequentialities such as the name for the necklace, but soon they become planning sessions for fund raisers and a place for the women to muster support for each other. When the community gets wind of the experiment, the diamonds take on a life of their own, and become not only a local conversation piece but a way for the women to share the glamour of the jewels with those who would never normally experience them. From baristas to homeless women, coworkers to brides, the diamonds become a symbol of sharing and goodwill from woman to woman, a sumptuous experience that reaches well beyond the original investors. As expected, sometimes tensions run high in the group and there are misunderstandings, but the women are able to see beyond those experiences and keep the experiment alive. Using the necklace, the women are able to champion social causes and aid many charities, including domestic violence centers, drug rehabilitation programs and specific assistance to the homeless. Among the group, the diamond necklace prompts questions of materialism, consumerism, social responsibility and the collectivism of women's society. The necklace ultimately transcends the boundaries of lavish expenditure and becomes the symbol and mascot for a great group of caring women.

I went into this book with many reservations. How, I asked myself, can anyone believe that in these harsh economic times believe that a diamond necklace can be the answer to some of our biggest problems? When people are losing their houses and can't afford gas or food, you want me to care about diamonds? I fully expected this book to be about privileged women and their proclivities for the high life. And indeed the first few chapters didn't skew my beliefs. In the first sections the women were described as exceptionally beautiful, reasonably wealthy and of an almost elite social class. Who could really relate with that? I saw the arrangement to purchase the necklace as a one woman's way to have something that was financially unfeasible, using her friends' investments as a monetary platform to reach beyond her grasp and obtain a lavish treat for herself. I was a little angry that I was expected to care about this foolishness, and that this was supposed to be a meaningful book. Then I read on, and discovered that that some of the women in this project were not so wonderfully well off and solvent: some were just scraping by, some were spiritually bereft, and some were lonely. The necklace for them became a way to make friends, something to share in a life that had become overwhelming and complicated. I began to revise my opinion. When the women began to reach out and support social causes, using the necklace to raise great amounts of money for their community, I revised again. But what really made me see the light of this book were the testimonials of random women who were gifted with the wearing of the necklace for hours, or even minutes. They spoke of feeling loved and appreciated, of being part of a group and feeling that their sacrifices in life were recognized by this one small act. Many primped and preened with the diamonds around their neck, but most just displayed a sense of awe that the diamonds had come their way. These women cherished this experience, and it made them feel loved and valued. Now, I don't necessarily think I would feel the same way, or get that thrilled about a string of diamonds around my neck, but obviously these women did. The necklace seemed to have a distinctive excitement surrounding it, and it touched everyone who came in contact with it. Though I find it a little far-fetched that a piece of jewelry can garner this type of reaction from so many people, I don't belittle them for their reaction. On the contrary, maybe in today's world we might all need something to get excited about and connect with. Maybe every community needs an experiment like The Necklace.

This is an excellent choice for book groups, as it seems to engender conversations regarding women and their friendships, along with painting a picture of what women can do when they join together. Although this is a moving read, I found the language to be a little simplistic, and the author's voice lacking in verve and poignancy. It does detract a bit from the story, but not in a way that mars the implications and realities of the book or the experiment. I didn't have much hope for this story initially, but once things started rolling and the author got past what made these women so elite and special, I found a very moving and inspiring story lurking inside these pages.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale - 240 pgs

Book CoverLawrence is a clever and lively nine year old boy with a penchant for astronomical trivia. He lives in England with his mother, 3 year old sister and his hamster Herman. Lawrence has a typical day to day life, fighting with his sister, speculating on his neighbors new kittens, and reading his favorite books. His mother though, is increasingly worried about his estranged father's malicious attempts at spying on the family and ruining her reputation among the neighbors, and decides it would be safer to relocate the family to Rome, where she lived before she met her husband. The trip is as troublesome as it is adventurous, and everyone looks forward to excitement and new situations. Once in Rome, "Mum's" friends seem glad to see her and offer help, but soon the family wears out their welcome. Struggling from place to place, Lawrence regales the reader with tales of unusual emperors and frightening popes, while trying to help and comfort a mother who is distraught and despondent. After finagling a place of her own for her family to live, it becomes clear that Mum's version of events regarding her husband do not reflect the reality of what has been going on. Lawrence, struggling to maintain an equilibrium in his world, must cope with the day to day life in a world where nothing is as it seems, and there is danger in very unsuspected places.

I was aware going into this book that there were spelling inconsistencies and that they book was told from the perspective of a child. I believe that the knowledge of this particular aspect of the book enabled me to accept it and disregard it more easily. I did notice that some words were spelled differently at different times, but it was not something that deflected my appreciation of the story. Though I easily saw Lawrence's mother's real conflict, the way the author handled the voice of Lawrence enabled me to see it from another perspective, one that highlighted the mystery and rationalization of a young boy in the face of unknown mental turmoil. Lawrence seemed both innocent and shrewd, not understanding the depth or gravity of his family's problem, but knowing that he had to be the man of the family and help his mother cope with the inevitable. At one point he mentions his responsibility as the only logical solution, for if he lets go, there will truly be no one who can cope. His staunch determination was staggeringly heartrending. At once scary and humbling, looking through Lawrence's eyes I saw the hopefulness and rationalizations of a child who is clearly in the dark, yet believes he can see everything clearly. It was an odd way of seeing things, at such an oblique angle, that I found it both entrancing and horrific. At times, it was so dreadfully uncomfortable to imagine life in this 9 year old mind, complicit yet not complicit, aware yet shielded by the very guilelessness of adolescence.

I thought this was an excellent book. The tale was unexpected, and told in such a way as to render it lively while still being very serious. In fact, I believe that the light manner of the narration did something to heighten the impact of the dramatic elements of the story. In this case it was not so much as an unreliable narrator as an inexperienced one, making sense of the story in the only capacity that he could. While things are stark for the reader, the main character remains in a state of innocence that effectively renders his inability to document an occurrence in the horrible worldly way we are familiar with, and in the end paints a picture of anguish in an elegant way. This is an unusual book, but one well worth the effort.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy - 368 pgs

Book CoverThe Triumph of Deborah tells the story of Deborah, Asherah, and Nogah, three women who must find their true path despite the difficulties that fate has dealt them. Deborah, an illustrious woman from the Bible, is widely known and respected for her role as a prophetess and judge to the Israelites. When Deborah receives a prophecy from the Lord that tells her that she must bring peace to the Israelites, she tries to negotiate peace between them and the Canaanites. But she is met with failure. She decides to persuade the great warrior Barak to form an army and defeat the Canaanites, an endeavor that proves to be successful. Upon his vanquishment of the Canaanites, Barak takes Asherah and Nogah, both daughters of the defeated Canaanite king, as captives in his home. Asherah, the legitimate daughter of the king, detests Barak and wishes to destroy him for killing her people. This is a problem for Barak, as he wishes to make Asherah his wife. Nogah, the illegitimate daughter of the king who was raised as a servant, feels differently about the man who has taken her captive. Despite her lowly position as his housemaid, Nogah falls desperately in love with Barak and must console herself with the fact that she doesn't exactly fit his notions for a wife. Meanwhile, Deborah begins to have problems in her marriage, and turns to Barak for affection and attention. The three women must examine and resolve their feelings for Barak and each other.

Despite the biblical roots of this story, I found that it was not a heavily religious text. Most of the action revolves around the three women and each one's relationship to the man they have in common. Though the book is ostensibly about Deborah, she was perhaps the woman who was least focused on in the narrative. Despite her scarcity, I found her to be the most enjoyable character of the lot. She was the only female able to look at situations in an unguarded and altruistic way. Her legendary composure and forthrightness was refreshing and enjoyable. I found that Deborah had a presence of mind that was not affected by jealousy or pettiness, and she had the ability to draw intelligent conclusions whether she was focused on battle, love, or religion.

On the other hand I didn't really understand Nogah's devotion to Barak. I never really saw good qualities in him. He was a notorious womanizer and seemed very selfish. Where Asherash's feelings of resentment towards Barak were plausible and valid, Nogah's feelings for him didn't seem all that realistic. He had very few positive personality characteristics, and Nogah's all-consuming love for him made her seem weak willed and naive. While I liked her character and enjoyed reading about her, I was silently wishing for her to move on with her life and find a man who would be able to love and appreciate her like she deserved. Despite Barak's prowess on the battlefield and his eventual evening out in temperament, I really didn't like his character. It was never really clear just why he was so attractive to the opposite sex, and despite his kind treatment of the women he bedded, he was shallow and vainglorious. I can't say that he was a total disappointment; there were aspects of his personality that were somewhat intriguing and benevolent, but overall he was a character that was hard to connect to and sympathize with.

One of the things that was great about this book was the way it handled the religious aspect of the story. It was informative but not preachy. It made no judgement calls on the validity of polytheism, and the central focus of the story was not evangelism. Where many biblical fiction books get caught short in sermonizing, this book was just the opposite. It didn't attempt to moralize or judge the situations or characters involved, and the effect was a more even keeled and readable story. Another thing I particularly liked was the level of historical detail. Though I knew the story of Deborah, the author did a great job of explaining the reasons and ramifications of the war between the Canaanites and Israelites, and how this war affected those who were part of it.

Despite finding some of the characters to be quite unsympathetic, I did enjoy the book and thought that the subject matter was handled very well. Though this was a historically accurate book, the main focus was on interpersonal relationships. The author did a good job of creating an enthralling story of three women from very different backgrounds and their struggles with love. I would recommend this book to those who like romance and intrigue in addition to those readers of biblical and historical fiction.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Résistance: A Frenchwoman's Journal of the War by Agnès Humbert - 370 pgs

Book CoverRésistance is the harrowing journal and memoir of Agnès Humbert, a middle-aged art historian in Paris, and her experiences in Nazi occupied France during WWII. When Humbert first hears the rumors of an occupation, she is distraught and numb, but soon finds a strong will of opposition inside her. She begins to contact others who are like-minded and is soon embroiled in producing Résistance, a newspaper filled with propaganda, which she and her colleagues distribute anywhere and everywhere they can. Agnès meets several important contacts and knows that danger is only a heartbeat away, for if the Germans find out about her anti-Nazi sentiments and activities, she will be imprisoned. Though she knows the dangers, she continues with her work, only to be brought in for questioning regarding her activities. Following her eventual trial, Agnès is convicted and sent to prison. What ensues is the heart-breaking story of what she was subjected to after being becoming a political prisoner in France, and later Germany.

The first section of this book was given over to the specifics and details of who and what her group of friends did in opposition to the German invasion. Many were implicated, yet as her journal was never found, Agnès was not the cause of any imprisonments or executions. Unfortunately, many of the people responsible for Résistance were tried and convicted anyway. I found this section to be a little dry and methodical. It almost seemed that this part of the book acted as a type of ledger of information, rather than a chronicle. Many of the people were only briefly mentioned, and I had some trouble in understanding who was who and what part they played in the opposition. While I believe that it was important to know the events that led up to her imprisonment, this section seemed a little too matter-of-fact.

The majority of this book was devoted to the time that Agnès spent as a prisoner and laborer. During this time she suffered many abuses at the hands of the Germans. The tortures that she and her fellow prisoners faced in the prison were terrible, from starvation and beatings to severe confinement. Despite their atrocious treatment, the women were able to form friendships and take joy in the company of others, sharing news and small victories with each other. Many would not recant their political ideology even after being subjected to daily bouts of cruel treatment. I found it hard to believe that things could get any worse for them, but when they were moved to a German work camp, what had come before paled by comparison. In the labor camps, it was obvious that life was expendable and cheap. The overseers' attitudes went beyond the malicious and into the area of savagery. They were worked like dogs, with no care given to injuries or illness, and the living conditions and rations were pitiful. While Agnès and her fellow laborers struggled, inhaling caustic chemicals that gave them temporary blindness and suppurating ulcers, they still found ways to share political information and news among themselves. Sometimes these friendships were cut short, as their overseers didn't like their fraternization, and women would be moved to other areas of the workhouse. Agnès, nevertheless, found ingenious ways to sabotage her work, as it was the only way she could oppose the occupation from inside its confinement. She never let them break her spirit, no matter what was forced upon her. When help finally arrived in the form of American troops in April of 1945, Agnès had been imprisoned for 5 years. Despite her experiences, she immediately took charge and helped the American forces seek out fleeing Nazis and created a temporary hospital for the refugees and Germans alike. She took command of many aspects of this new civilian life, and was greatly esteemed by the Allied forces, fellow prisoners and the community.

One of the most amazing thing about this book was Agnès' remarkable wit and sense of humor. No matter what horrors the day brought her, she had an amazingly beautiful spirit that enabled her to continue laughing. She never showed despair and defeat; rather a cynical cleverness in which she documented the sufferings of herself and those around her. Despite all that happened to her and her compatriots, she never let go of her beliefs and fought in the only way she knew how. Agnès never let herself sink into depression, despite her many injuries or disappointments. I very much admired her courage and strength.

This story was both haunting and inspiring. Among the atrocities committed in WWII, this remains a story that is not often heard but that truly needs to be told. It may enlighten others to the fact that Jews were not the only victims of this terrible war. I found myself feeling maudlin and upset while reading this book, but I am glad that I read it. It is a terrible tale, but behind that tale lurks the spirit of of a woman who would not give up, turning a story that could only be ugly into a thing of beauty.

A Meme for Me

I have been tagged by Inkhorn Platypus to answer a few questions about myself. This is my first time being tagged, and I'm kind of excited about it! So without further ado, lets get to this question business.

What is your favorite word?

I have to say that I've loved the word plethora for many years. It just has such a nice sound rolling off the tongue. I don't often hear it used, but its my favorite all the same.

What is your least favorite word?

I hate the word carbuncle. Not only is the definition ugly, but I think the word in itself is hideous. Coming across that word in any connotation always makes me feel squicky.

What turns you on (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?

I am turned on by emotional expressiveness, honesty, wit, and intelligence.

What turns you off (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?

People who are mean just to be mean, closed-mindedness, insincerity and lying.

What sound or noise do you love?

The sound of waves, rain tapping on the glass, laughter, the traffic from my bedroom window at night. The little pig noises my dog makes when she's happy.

What sound or noise do you hate?

Snoring! Screaming, cell phones ringing while watching a movie.

What’s your favorite curse word?

I like the very old fashioned arse. For a curse word it sounds kind of classy, and it's not exactly bandied about all that much, which makes it a little unique (at least in America).

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

I would love to be a librarian. To be surrounded by all those books would be an absolute dream. I imagine that I'd be a lot more well-read than I am right now, and It would be cool to be able to offer suggestions to people on reading material. My answer was going to be to work at a bookstore, but I would come home penniless, I'm afraid.

What profession would you not like to do?

I would not like to work in any form of government job. I speak from experience.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Hey, glad you're here, we were waiting for you to get here to start the party!

I am tagging three people to answer the same questions:

Dawn at She Is Too Fond Of Books.
Marie at The Boston Bibliophile.
Lana at A Hoyden's Look at Literature.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld - 576 pgs

Book CoverAlice Lindgren is a small town girl growing up in 1950's Wisconsin. She has a loving family life and is particularly close to her stylish and witty grandmother, who also lives with her family. When Alice becomes a teenager, she is involved in a tragic accident that has serious repercussions for herself and a young boy in whom she is interested. Despite setbacks after the accident, Alice moves on with her life and becomes a librarian in a public school. She is looking forward to buying a house and spending time with friends when she meets the handsome and enigmatic Charlie Blackwell. Charlie's family owns the meat plant where he has a high profile job, and he and his family are extremely wealthy. Though Alice at first resists Charlie's advances, they become a couple and are soon married. In an effort to carve out a legacy for himself, Charlie tries to obtain work in other fields, eventually running for political office, first as Governor, and ultimately President. Alice continuously supports Charlie even though she doesn't want him to run for office, choosing silence instead of dissent. In addition to having to deal with his large boisterous family, she has to become the nation's First Lady. Throughout Alice and Charlie's marriage, they share the joy of raising a child and the tumultuous effects of addiction, fame, and power.

This book was obliquely modeled after the life and times of Laura Bush, and as I was reading, I was wondering just how much was fiction and how much was truth. Whether this account is accurate or highly embellished, I tried to view the book as a novel of complete fiction, as to speculate too much about the author's intended subject may have colored my view on the book unnecessarily. First of all, though Alice was a fantastically deep character who seemed to know her emotions and behaviors well, she came off as somewhat of a pushover. When Charlie or his family treat her shabbily, she rolls over and quietly takes the abuse. There were times I felt so frustrated at her meekness, letting her husband dictate their way of life and having adult temper tantrums when he didn't get his way. Alice, meanwhile, quietly endures, never wanting to be a nag or obstacle for him. Sure, in her moments of reflection, we see that Alice really does have an opinion, and she does aspire to better things, but she never puts that into action. I would have liked her more if she would have been stronger and told Charlie how she felt, instead of being a supplicant to all of his needs. Though Charlie does make a turnaround in his behavior, the turnaround seems half-hearted. Charlie still did what Charlie wanted, despite Alice's wishes, only now he did it in a nicer way. It was odd to see a character who was so aware of her emotions, so tuned into what was right and how she was feeling, act so submissive to her true beliefs. In some ways this made her drab and unscrupulous. She would have been far more able to control her situation and life if she only spoke up! The result is that she has a higher popularity rating then her husband, but while being decidedly differing in her beliefs, she continues to meekly support him. I liked Alice. Mostly. I liked her intelligence, tact and pragmatism, but I didn't like her docile and modest attitude. Her inability to speak up and act decisively made her seem weak and ineffectual.

I did not at all like Charlie Blackwell. I found him to be egotistical and self-centered. He was disrespectful to almost everyone and had a huge reckless streak. I found it hard to sympathize with him or to take him seriously. It never became clear to me why Alice married him, and often it seemed he wore her down with all his antics. Charlie never seemed to have the proper gravity that a man in a high position must have in order to be respected, and his embracing of religion seemed to be devised to deflect negative repercussions of his behavior. At times pushy, at times whiny, Charlie was always self-absorbed. I was so angry when he repeatedly left Alice in uncomfortable situations to tend to his whims. He could never be counted upon. He was also mildly racist, and though these episodes were not expounded upon, Charlie's moral leanings were certainly clear to the reader. It was clear to see why Alice was always so tired and brow-beaten.

Although these were flawed characters, the book was very well written and interesting. Alice was a particularly vivid character, and at times I marveled at her insights and intellect. Her portrayal was very detailed and she seemed very conscious of herself and her emotions. Though the book seems to skip some significant spaces in time, it wasn't disjointed or jumpy. I would have liked to know a little bit more about the sections of their midlife, as that was curiously left out, but that's a minor quibble. I also liked the tone of the book. It was serious but not melodramatic, a perfect balance of weightiness and candor. I thought that the years relating Alice's childhood were the best sections of the book, as the author really gave a lot of flavor to the portrayal of her family, especially her grandmother, an astute and canny bibliophile. I believe the narrative voice in this book was extremely well done. And while I liked Alice, I disliked some of the choices she made. Overall I enjoyed this look at the life of a First Lady, but was ultimately left with more questions than answers regarding Alice. Is she meant to seem thin-skinned, or quietly wise? I would invite you to read this very interesting book, and see for yourself.

Friday, August 29, 2008

An Infamous Army: A Novel of Wellington, Waterloo, Love and War by Georgette Heyer - 492 pages

Book CoverAn Infamous Army is the story of General Wellington's successful routing of Napoleon Bonaparte in the battle of Waterloo. As Napoleon's troops make their way towards Brussels, General Wellington is having trouble obtaining solid and trained soldiers and enough ammunition and artillery to fight the battle successfully. Beloved by his forces, Wellington must direct and marshal the tactical forces over the countryside in order to overtake the French forces. In addition to those problems, he is working with various other military leaders and troops not under his command, and the effort to create a unified front is one of the major problems in this battle. The mood in Brussels, however, is one of excitement and merriment, as many of the English gentry are visiting Brussels, and fete's and dinners are the order of the day. Of the party going set, the most illustrious is the Lady Barbara Childe. Barbara, a young widow, is flamboyantly fashionable and out to take the city by storm. Both glamorous and ostentatious, Lady Barbara has her pick of men among the crowd, and is never without an admirer. Her bold behavior and extravagant flirting keep her name constantly on the lips of those around her. But Lady Barbara is not prepared for her unexpected feelings for Colonel Charles Audley, whom she meets at a party. Audley too is quite smitten with Barbara, and instantly proposes marriage, a situation which shocks and stuns their social set. Can Barabara put away her coquettish ways for Audley and make herself a true and devoted wife? As these questions loom, Napoleon advances, and the battle begins in all it's bloody glory. When all is said and done, many will be lost and injured, and all must look to the future in their newly changed circumstances, including Audley and Lady Barbara.

Normally, I love historical fiction. I enjoy the enlightenment of discovering little known details surrounding historical events, and the glimpse into the lives of characters who have changed the course of history, even when they are slightly embellished. However, this book was not very enjoyable. The amount of detail, while impressive, was overwhelming. Some of the military tactical information and battle scenes seemed to go on forever, and the jump back to the events surrounding Barbara and Audley seemed too few and far between. I also disliked the minutia of the details. For example, there was a lot of information on the various colors and styles of the uniforms of the soldiers, which divisions had been deployed, and who was leading them. It was almost like reading a roster of names... very dry and lackluster. While I appreciate the amount of research that went into this account of Waterloo, it was very uninteresting and leaden. Perhaps if one were reading this as a history book, it would have been different, but I believe that the inclusion of the story of Barbara and Audley failed at the attempt to elevate this book into the realms of historical fiction. They seemed an afterthought, something pushed in to give the story some flavor to a rather dull military procedural. The book's tone was one of instruction, and rather than being interesting, it was instead informative.

I also disliked Lady Barbara. I don't believe that in order to be a complex character you have to be cruel, but that's exactly what Lady Barbara was. She was very spoiled and recalcitrant, always pushing the boundaries of propriety just because she liked to make a spectacle of herself. Many times in the book she admitted to being an intolerable vixen, yet she shrugged it off and claimed that her behavior was something she enjoyed and would continue. If she had not made other's so uncomfortable and ill at ease I could have accepted that. However, she seemed to enjoy playing one man off another and disappointing her friends and family. In one scene she specifically begins to take interest in a man in order to take revenge on his wife for a small social slight. I found this to be repulsive and ill-bred. It was almost unbelievable that Colonel Audley felt so strongly for her, because he was the most gentlemanly and kind person in the book. I found them to be a bad match, and an implausible one as well. Barbara spent the book flitting off from one flirtation to the next, dropping each one as her interest waned. I did not believe that her behavior would change after circumstances were altered. She seemed flighty and her serious emotions were not believable, and I had no patience for her or her antics by the end of the book. I lost a little respect for Audley's character for being so blind to her shenanigans, and felt this portion of the book to be highly vexing.

Although I didn't enjoy this book very much, I can see that it has its importance. Looking at it from a historical perspective, it is quite an accomplishment. The stellar research and the author's ability to keep all the specific information clear and well paced might be more appreciated by some who are fond of military history. Had the story been less focused on the battle and more focused on the periphery I would have enjoyed it more, and been better able to recommend it. As it was, this book was not really to my taste.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Matchmaker of Périgord: A Novel - by Julia Stuart - 320 pages

Book CoverGuillaume Ladoucette is a barber with no customers. Since the arrival in town of a new barber (whose specialty in male hair design is called "the pine cone"), Guillaume's business has been in a slump. Despite his tremendous ability to cut and style hair and his great capacity to sell hairpieces and faux sideburns, the only customers that still visit his shop are balding. With almost no customers to grace his shop, he decides to remake himself as the small province's matchmaker, with hilarious results. The town, whose residents number only 32, are having their own problems when, after a water restriction imposed by the council, they are forced to bathe in a communal shower in the center of the square. Then there is the feud between Guillaume's mother and Madame Moreau, both women using comestibles as ammunition; and the return of Émilie Fraisse, Guillaume's long-pined-for love, who has purchased an ancient chateau complete with copious bat droppings. We also meet other unusual inhabitants of the town, such as Yves Lévèque, the town dentist, whose inability to find love is rivaled only by his pickyness; Stéphane Jollis, the culinarily competitive baker; and Sandrine Fournier, the assistant ambulant fishmonger and mushroom poisoner. With Guillaume's new profession comes problems that only a small town can have. The pickings are slim, and everyone is so acquainted with one another that they don't see love matches among themselves, making the matchmakers job all the harder. But work isn't his only problem, for after finding out that Émilie Fraisse is back in town, his heart is in a whirlwind and he must decide whether to confess his secret adoration of many years to her, or to remain silent and lose his chance at love. Add one chicken that can only be described as a hooligan, and you have the delightful and curiously entertaining story of The Matchmaker of Périgord.

I absolutely loved this book. It was quirky and unique and very cleverly comic. I loved the small touches that the author used to give it flavor, such as using the first and last names of all the characters at all times, and the reiteration of plot points throughout the story. This was a very verbose story, but I found that I didn't mind the packed pages at all. The author has a wonderful way of generously using her words with the effect that the townspeople and their situations came alive. The plot was deliciously fleshed out but not convoluted, and the humor was more cerebral than slapstick. At times I was astonished at the level of detail that went into this story, and though it is a comedic book, it is also a very literary one. This is not a book that you can let your mind wander over; it requires some attention to keep the myriad characters straight, but it was not a bothersome task at all. Though some of the plot elements were a little far-fetched, I found I was won over by the inventiveness of the story. The description of the foodstuffs in this book were wonderful as well. Some of the things that were eaten I had never heard of being consumable before, and although I wouldn't want to taste some of them, reading about them was a treat. In particular, the sections regarding the picnic basket competitions between Guillaume and Stéphane were surprising and fantastical, and I found myself wanting to share them with whoever would listen. Another great touch was the characterizations in this book, all of which were very developed and multi-layered. Each of the complex characters had their own back story, quirks, and particular behaviors. It was a very eclectic mix of people and situations, and it must have been a huge job to juggle so many elements in one story, but it came off seamlessly.

Though my experience with comic novels is not very broad, I know what I like, and I know what works. This book succeeded in both categories. It was not laugh out loud funny, but rather the kind of book that you read with a continual smile on your face. This is the perfect book to curl up and unwind with. The humor is not biting or sarcastic, or filled with jokes at another's expense. If you are looking for something outlandish or offbeat, this is the book for you.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Aberrations by Penelope Przekop - 336 pgs

Book CoverAberrations tells the captivating story of 21 year old narcoleptic Angel Duet, whose struggle to find her identity and past lead her through mind and heart altering experiences. Though Angel tries to lead a normal existence by going to college and holding a job, the disorder she suffers from causes her to lapse into a sleep-like paralysis and sends her consciousness floating into a dreamworld. When her father's girlfriend Carla begins to rearrange a series of cloud photographs that are the only legacy Angel's mother left behind, questions surface about the life and death of Angel's mother Betty Lou. Though her father has lovingly raised her all her life, he is emotionally closed and secretive about Betty Lou, leaving Angel desperate to discover any scrap of information about her life by whatever means necessary. Angel's search for "Mother" will lead her to many places and people, and leave her ferreting out the many secrets and emotional truths she will find along the way. In addition to her narcolepsy and her search for her mother, Angel is involved in a tangled love affair with a married man. When Angel befriends Tim, Kimmy, and Scarlett, people that can only be described as social outcasts, she initially hides her narcolepsy from them but soon realizes that they have secrets of their own. Soon Angel is involved in a world of drugs, sex and violence, through these experiences she must learn to find herself, and ultimately find the truth of "Mother" as it exists for her.

This was a very gritty book. Emotionally, it pulled no punches and most of the situations faced by the main character were portrayed very bluntly. This was, I think, a distinction in the writing,the ability to make the characters feelings vivid and visceral to the reader. The passages in this book rang with a straightforwardness of language and emotion; none of the characters were coy with their emotions or outbursts, preferring rather to lay all their cards out on the table and deal with unpleasantness head on. I liked this straightforward technique because I felt it heightened the story's impact on the reader. The growth of the main character was also handled well. Angel seemed to mature right in front of my eyes, her complacency and confusion given over to understanding in the final sections of the book. I found her character to be very believable as well. It was frightening to read about her experiences and the turmoil the disease razed in her life. She struggled with emotions that I felt were accurate reflections of what a person with a neurological disorder would have, such as having trouble forming and maintaining relationships and difficulty relating her position in society. Although her anger towards the end of the book saddened me, I thought it truly representative of a person who was somewhat disconnected from the full impact of reality and struggled with it as it was presented to her. Another aspect of this book was the concept of the secrets that we all possess, and how they affect our lives. Each character had a secret; some divulged them without much prodding while others kept them close throughout the novel. The inclusion of so many secrets in this book led me to think about the realities that exist for us as humans, hiding unappealing facets of our lives in order to be accepted and loved. From the secrets that destroy us to the secrets that set us free, each are beautifully represented in this book.

The one problem I found in this book was the use of southern dialect in the characters' speech. I found it a bit jarring and bothersome to read. I think the intended effect was to lend credibility to the fact that these were southern characters, but I would have preferred it had the author left this out. I found that it limited the power of the language throughout the book and created an incongruous result.

Overall this was a wonderfully written book. Some of the passages had the beauty of poetry, and the elegance and economy of the language really lent a lot to the greatness of this work. It was impossible not to sympathize with Angel, and even in her defiant moments she was a full and engaging character. The supporting characters were well developed as well. I would definitely recommend this book to someone who is interested in a character driven drama with eloquent plot twists.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwarz - 244 pgs

Book CoverSo Long at the Fair is the story of pivotal day in the Life of Jon and Ginny. The couple are high school sweethearts who found their connection due to a devastating accident and have been married for several years. Ginny is a lovable pack rat whose gardening business is beginning to flourish, while Jon is a typical type-A advertising executive, driven and focused on Freddi, a woman outside of their marriage. The novel frames an intense day when Jon must decide whether to abandon his fledgling affair, or to continue it and leave Ginny behind. Sprinkled throughout this story is the story of Bud and Marie, Jon's parents, whose actions are told in flashback. Bud and Marie's actions have had repercussions that have impacted Jon and Ginny's life, and brought them where they are today. As the couple spends the day separated by an argument, both examine the relationship and and remember the events that ultimately brought them together. In between we learn of Freddi's attempts to dissuade a persistent admirer who doesn't seem to know when to let go, and Ginny's decision to do business with a man who has a shadowy connection to her past.

This book had a strange effect on me. I found the tenuous construction of the plot to be very difficult to keep track of. Many times it was confusing as to when in the specific time period action was taking place, or who the characters were in relation to one another. This was particularly so in the flashback portions of the book. The modern sections were more easily construed, but those sections had their difficulties as well. In particular, the way the back story was woven together was a little annoying. Instead of getting the full story at one time, the author chose to distribute the information in several bits, alternating between Jon and Ginny. Many of the secondary characters seemed to be underdeveloped and hazy as well, and I found most of the characters in this book to be very unlikable, especially Freddi. She seemed to have quite an attitude of self-importance, and her personality teetered between smugness and insecurity for most of the book. The male characters too were unsatisfying, as I found them to be unfeeling and somewhat uncommunicative. The only character that I felt any affinity for was Ginny; she seemed to be more expressive and her motives were more realistic. It is possible that the instances of infidelity were what turned me off in this book, but I rather think it was the way the situation was portrayed and the callousness of the characters that bothered me. Despite all this, I found that the story moved along with a great amount of force and direction, and I was compelled to keep reading. The author did a good job of maintaining the tension and urgency of the story despite the structural and character flaws. The ending was somewhat of a slow deflation of the story, and I think in some ways it worked, but in others it ways was anticlimactic. I am of two minds about the ending of this book because it gives the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions as to what happens next, but at the same time, after following the events leading up to the moment, it seems a bit of a cop-out for the resolution to be withheld.

All in all I found this book to be one I liked very much, and at the same time not at all. There was a lot going on structurally that I felt could have been done more evenly and efficiently, but at the same time there was a great driving force behind the narrative that kept me focused on the important elements of the story. I found that immediately after finishing the book I felt cold towards it, yet after a few days of thinking and digesting it, I liked it more. I would recommend this book with one caveat: this book needs to be appreciated as a whole, because the individual parts can be dissatisfying on their own.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Forbidden Daughter by Shobhan Bantwal - 336 pgs

Book CoverWhen Isha Tilak discovers that she is carrying a girl child in her womb, she fears the repercussions from her in-laws. Traditionally in India, the eldest male child and his family live with his parents, and must adhere to their rules and demands. Though her husband Nikhil is supportive about the pregnancy, he also knows that his parents will not bear this discovery gracefully. The couple, who already have one daughter, soon begin to feel the pressure as Nikhil's parents want them to abort the fetus. Isha is aware of the practice of selective abortion, yet never believes it will touch her life. The practice, clothed in secrecy, is suggested to the them by the older couple, who believe that only male children will continue the family legacy and carry the family name into the next generation. Like many Indians, they look on female babies as bad luck and useless mouths to feed. When the family's doctor asks Isha and Nikhil if they wish to abort the child, they vehemently refuse. Then Nikhil is killed under strange circumstances, leaving Isha to fight alone against her family's demands. With the pressure of the forced abortion mounting daily, Isha must find a way to give birth to the daughter that Nikhil will never see. Into this mix comes an unexpected stranger who can not only save Isha, but also help her get to the root of her husband's death, and might even give her a new start at life. Along the way, Isha discovers a shocking secret that will put those who she cares about in serious danger, and she must fight for the courage to expose a ruthless duo of men trying to protect their clandestine activities.

Until reading this book, I had no idea of the magnitude of selective abortion in India. The author does a wonderful job of relating this problem in her story, while still being able to create a rich tale that encompasses duty, forgiveness and love. Though the characters in this story are somewhat modern Indians, they still harbor the more traditional Indian ideals, using the advanced technology such as ultrasound to further their gender goals. I found the entire process of gender specific abortion hard to swallow, and cheered Isha on in her attempts to make her family understand the societal implications as well as the moral significance of their actions. I admired Isha's character as a strong and intelligent woman who never yields to the outside pressure of her family. Her struggle for independence after Nikhil's death takes her character through a series of complex and difficult emotions. The love she has for her children is the unyielding root of this story, and many times she made some very hard choices in order to keep them safe and secure. This story had the additional component of a love story that was unexpected and welcome. While Isha struggled to remain faithful to her husband's memory, she could not ignore the romantic feelings that were brewing inside of her, and continued to act admirably. Although I liked the character of Isha, I found her in-laws to be despicable. They were controlling and domineering and made life for Isha and the children extremely difficult. They both were very negative people who seemed to only care for their narrow-minded beliefs, and went to absurd lengths to attain their goals. It was eye-opening to discover that some women in India have to live in such rigid and oppressive home situations.

This was a book that was hard to pin down to any specific genre. It was by turns a drama, a love story, and, atypically a thriller. I found the various styles in the book moved very fluidly and the story seemed well rounded. It was an interesting view into the social climate of today's India, and the societal pressure that many women are faced with to produce male offspring. In a note appending the book, the author goes into detail regarding the staggering number of selective abortions performed in the past two decades. This book, in addition to being a well developed story, was also a way for the author to make a social statement about this illegal and immoral practice. I believe she achieved both beautifully.
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