Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SCHINDLER'S LIST by Thomas Keneally (✰✰✰✰✰)

I loved the format in which Thomas Keneally wrote this book! It is listed as a novel, but definitely reads like non-fiction. The author himself states in the introduction that he was very, very careful with his facts, but that he chose to write the book as a novel for two reasons: he is a novelist by trade and that is the format he is comfortable writing, and he desired to include conversations. He assures the reader that all dialog is based on reports of actual conversations which took place. The original title of the book was Schindler's Ark, but on account of the movie it was rereleased under the movie's title. I love the original title, as Oskar Schindler did provide an ark for his Jews in the midst of the flood of Nazi atrocities.
This is a difficult book to get through, due to the horrific events that it chronicles. It is very seldom that I set a book aside and read another concurrently, but several times I found myself listening to my current audio book rather than reading this paperback; I needed a break from the intensity. The fact that I was unable to read their story made me marvel anew at the thousands of people who lived through such tragedy. More than anything, for me this is a story of love; it is a love story between a carousing German playboy industrialist and a group of Jewish prisoners. Oskar cared for them during the darkest hours of their lives, and they cared for him during the darkest hours of his. They were each other's family until the days of their deaths.
My audio book that I was listening to while reading this one, Devil in the White City, made for an interesting juxtaposition. In both books the leading man was cunning, charming, and savvy; H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who used those traits to lure in his victims. Oskar Schindler used them to save the lives of 1200 people sentenced to die.
This is one of the most powerful, moving books that I have ever read, and I can not recommend it highly enough. Yes, the movie is great, but to get the whole of this incredible story you must read the book.

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy (✰✰✰✰)

Not being a fan of post-apocalyptic novels, I would not likely have read this one had the audio not been very highly lauded. This novel was also voted one of the top ten reads for 2010 for one of my book groups. This was my first McCarthy novel, and I will definitely read others. His spare style of prose was perfect for the stark environment of this plot-line. There are two main characters in the novel, a man and his son, who's names the reader never learns, who travel a road toward what they hope will be a better life in a post nuclear existence. There is a definite division of good and evil, and this lends an unexpected feeling of hope amid hopelessness. While certainly not the most cheerful book I have read in a while, I was very swept up in the survival of this father and son. My one very minor complaint would be that some of the events seemed to get a tad repetitive, although each varied in its own way, and to some extent their lives were a bit repetitive, so this needed reflection in the plot. If you are not looking for gaiety and would like a quick (the audio ran only 6.75 hours), good read, this is one to reach for.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson (✰✰✰✰✰)

This is not at all my usual type of book. It is very rare that I read a mystery, let alone a crime novel, and I do not think I have ever read a true crime book. They tend to really creep me out; I literally get nightmares. My husband likes those types of TV shows, but has graciously developed the habit of pausing his DVR if I walk into the room. I made an exception for this book because several people thought I would enjoy it, and they assured me that it was not at all gory. As you see from my rating, I loved it! Larson takes two true stories, one about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, and one about a serial killer in Chicago who preyed upon fairgoers. There is no mystery here; the reader is aware from the outset who the killer is. The divergence of the two tales was worked perfectly. I knew absolutely nothing about world fairs, let alone the Chicago fair, prior to reading this; it truly is an amazing feat how they pulled it off. Some of my favorite parts of the book were about Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park, who was in charge of designing the grounds of the fair. The 1893 World's Fair was also challenged by the fact that there was a world wide depression in progress at the time, forcing the planners to find extra enticements to get paying guests into the park. Buffalo Bill Cody played a part as well and was one of the few to become very wealthy as a result. The first Ferris Wheel was built for the Chicago fair, and its history is a fascinating sub-plot within the book. The audio came highly recommended to me, and I whole-heartedly pass along the recommendation. Whether you love general history, world fairs, or true crime, this is one not to be missed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley (✰✰✰✰)

For about the first two thirds of the book, I was unimpressed. To me the writing felt sluggish, too much detail that came across as arrogance on the narrator's part-as if the reader really cared about the mundane. However, in retrospect, the fact that Victor was so self-centered ends up playing hugely into the psychology of the tale: how one person's blind pursuits can lead to such ill-considered results. By the final third of the novel, it was startlingly clear why this is considered a classic. Because I do not want to, in any way, give away the plot, this is a difficult review to write. Allow me to say that this is a riveting example of how choices that can seem very gratifying to the individual at the time of their inception can, in the end, if not carried to a responsible conclusion, take on a life all their own (in this case quite literally). There is also a sub-theme to the book, addressing the issue of whether or not evil intent is innate or is acquired through life experience. Initially, I had thought that this would be a three star book. In the end I would have given it five stars for the themes, but the writing style didn't grab me, so I settled on four. If you are in the mood for a quick, thought-provoking read, this is an excellent choice. I listened to the audio, by Brilliance, which was very atmospheric.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood (✰✰✰)

After several excellent books in a row, I did not expect my streak to end with this book, as it was so favored by so many others. It was a huge disappointment for me. On the basis of the story alone, I would likely have given it only two stars, as it did not grab me the way it seems to grab others. The story is of a society in the near future, where women are subjugated and classified into given roles. Handmaids are women of childbearing years given to couples unable to have children of their own. I found the whole premise far-fetched, and nothing made it more believable for me. Even having read other's opinions and their arguments as to why they believe we are heading in this direction in our own society (other issues besides women are touched on, but only in passing), I did not buy into it one iota. What earned it the third star was Atwood's masterful writing. She has a supreme talent for doling out information in little dribs and drabs that gently lead the reader to the whole picture. While this particular dystopian theme was not my cup of cocoa, I will definitely read another of her novels, as I liked her style.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS by Elena Gorokhova (✰✰✰✰)

This is a book which, had our library not purchased it, I would have bought. Having spent my impressionable later childhood in the shadow of the Soviet Union, this memoir by a resident of Leningrad, not too many years older than myself, was very high on my must read pile. I was not disappointed. Elena Gorokhova depicts her homeland with broad, visionary strokes of one not taken in by the party line. In addition to telling her own tale of life in post-Stalin Russia, she also includes a great wealth of the stories of her parents and grandparents, making this a social history reaching almost back to the Bolshevik revolution. On one hand, I felt as if this book transported me across the Iron Curtain, allowing me to see both the daily minutiae and the broader culture of my contemporary on the other side. On the other hand, at times the narration became a little bogged down in day-to-day detail and became rather sluggish. This one factor kept this book from earning a fifth star but in no way diminishes my wholehearted endorsement. Those of you who are of a similar age to the author will no doubt find this, as I did, an enlightening look at a parallel life.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves (✰✰✰✰✰)

Not being a huge fan of ancient history, it is unlikely that I would have picked this one up of my own choosing. I am, therefore, very grateful to whomever chose this book for the Historical Fiction Group. Truth be told, I put off reading this one, expecting it to be a bit of a slog; far from it! Written in the form of an autobiography, this novel takes the reader on a journey through the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula, through the eyes of the humorous, quietly savvy, and thoroughly lovable Claudius. As I have not done a whole lot of reading on the emperors of Rome, I was pretty astonished by their conniving, greed, cruelty, and complete disregard for life. I would have to agree with those who say that this book is one of the best depictions of the society of Ancient Rome; I left I Claudius feeling as though I had been through a crash course in palace intrigue, alliance building (or switching at an opportune moment), and the importance of saying the right thing at the right time. Since I am not much of a scholar of the ancients, I did get rather a bit lost attempting to keep all the players and their relationships to one another straight-these fellows divorced and remarried (often a spouse they forced another to divorce first) with dizzying rapidity. Thankfully, a member of our group, Mara, kindly gave us the following link to a family tree, which is a great help to any reader of this excellent adventure through ancient Rome: http://www.historyinfilm.com/claudius/famtree3.htm
I look forward to continuing Claudius' story in Robert Graves' Claudius the God.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH by Susan Hertog (✰✰✰✰✰)

Every now and then I pick up something to read on a complete whim, knowing little or nothing about the subject. This, for me, was just such a book. I was trolling the audio download list at the library site and stumbled across this thought-provoking gem. The author, Susan Hertog, was a housewife who never aspired to be a writer but was driven to write this book by an utter fascination with Anne Morrow Lindbergh. At times her prose is a little over the top, but her narrative flow is excellent. Despite her obvious reluctance to besmirch her subject in any way, I felt that she did give a fairly balanced portrayal. I knew about Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis and the tragic tale of the Lindbergh baby, but as I read this book I realized that I did not know even a modicum about this couple. If you were to take Anne and tell her story divorced from the time in which she lived, it would not carry near the impact. Anne was a well bred, well educated young woman who married a famous man and went on to become a writer and a pilot in her own right. She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter-all things that so many of us can claim to be. What made her existence so extraordinary was the time and place in which she lived. The central theme running through this biography is the general attitude towards women and the role they were expected to play in the society of the 1920s-1960s. Despite qualms which she might have felt with regards to her husband's beliefs on issues such as eugenics, anti-semitism, and U.S. involvement in the war, Anne publicly supported her spouse, even to the extent of lending her gifts as a writer to his causes. It was only after Kristallnacht, when Anne fully realized the extent of the persecution of the Jewish Europeans, that she began to feel the pull of her own beliefs and desires. From that point on, Anne's writings, which are frequently quoted in this book, expressed the conflict of wanting to honor the role society, and she felt God, expected of her, and to honor her own self. What utterly captivated me was that hers was a timeless battle which virtually every woman fights; watching it happen in her life, I felt as if I were seeing elements of my life reflected back at me in slow motion. And so, this one gets five stars for the snapshot it gave, not just of a single individual, but of many women, and for the beautifully artful integration of Anne's own writings, which has left me wanting to read everything Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reading Goals for 2011

Last year I read fifty books; as it was the first year I kept track, I have no idea if that was a lot for me, or a little.  This year I have set a few benchmarks that I hope to attain with regards to my reading.

  • 50 Book Challenge: Despite having a number of longer reads on my short list, I hope to reach fifty books read.
  • Pick a Year Challenge: I want to read twelve books published in 2005.
  • Long Book Challenge: I want to read 4,000 pages from books 600 pages or longer.