Thursday, November 17, 2011

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥

I am so profoundly affected by this book that finding the words to describe how it moves me is proving quite the challenge.  Knowing that the subject matter is a street (ironically named “Heaven”) in Germany during World War II, and the families that lived there, I was not all that eager to pick it up.  It seemed such worn out subject matter; I have read so many such books.  I am thankful for my Pick a Year Challenge-The Book Thief was published in the author’s native Australia in 2005, my challenge year-otherwise this gem would have languished on my list for a very long time.
One central element gives the book its primary punch, and that is the inspired choice of the narrator-Death.  In my minds eye he is not simply Death, but The Angel of Death, as he comes for the souls of those who have died.  Through Death’s eyes the reader follows the other characters, in particular Liesel, a girl entering her teens as the war commences.  The characters are rich and varied and clearly evolve as the ugliness of war comes to inhabit Himmel Street.
Zusak’s style reminds me a good deal of Cormac McCarthy’s.  McCarthy uses short, sparse sentences to create the feeling of emptiness-destroyed physical desolation in the case of The Road and wide open spaces in the case of his Border Trilogy.  Markus Zusak uses the same kind of minimalistic prose to capture the emotional desolation of his time and place, and the effect is stunning.  I read one review where the writer stated that the prose felt overly simple, and therefore juvenile, and then she realized that this was a young adult book.  My reaction is just the opposite.  This writing style is perfect for creating the tone of the novel, and I feel regret that the book is not marketed as an adult book, expanding its audience.
As a teacher, I will be adding this book to our curriculum.  In addition to the various themes: survivor guilt, good even among the evil, and love, there is also some interesting symbolism stemming from books and an accordion.  The elements are easy for high schoolers to clearly see yet woven deftly enough to make this a powerful, mature read for adults young and old.  My one warning would be that some might find the language a bit on the strong side.
I would be absolutely remiss in ending this review without high praise for the narrator of the audio version.  Allan Corduner’s performance as the narrator, Death, is marvelous.  Each character is infused with their own distinct personality, and his German accent is excellent.  My one, very slight, complaint might be that Liesel’s voice is a tad bit sappy.  This would be a good book to listen to with a print copy in your hand.  You won’t want to miss the narration, but you will want to be able to read with a pencil in hand to mark the many memorable phrases.
This book will definitely be among my top three fiction titles read this year and might very well snag the top spot.  Very highly recommended!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MOON SHOT by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree ✰✰✰

There are some events in the history of mankind which can never be duplicated.  Only one person could be the first to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, or drift outside its confines, or walk on the face of our moon.  The 1950s through the 1970s were a special time in the great, epic story of our race.  A few dozen men with skill, nerve, and willingness to put their lives on the line to experience the impossible, for themselves and their fellow human beings, stepped up for perhaps the greatest endeavor in earth’s history.  To land a man on the face of the moon and return him safely home.  Aided by the sharpest minds in rocket science, aerospace engineering, and computer and communications systems, these men of courage expanded our frontier, some at the expense of their lives.
The four hundred pages of this book flew by for me.  Beginning with the choice, in the waning days of World War II, of a group of German rocket scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, to surrender to the Americans, which became the genesis of the United States’ rocket program, the initial printing of this book ended with the Apollo-Soyuz mission (a joining, in 1975, of a U.S. and a Soviet spacecraft while they orbited the earth).  Both astronauts involved in the writing, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, have passed away since the original printing in 1994.  Journalist Jay Barbree wrote an update for the latter version, which I read, which has been rereleased in 2011 for the 50th anniversary of the advent of the space program.  His update felt rushed and gave very little specific information about the space program since the last Apollo flight; I would have appreciated a less political stance and one which gave more concrete information.
If you are looking for a fast ride through the history of the U.S., and to a very minimal extent, the Soviet, race to the moon, this is a solid place to start.  It is also a good book to read if you want to believe that there was very little tension and competition among the astronauts themselves and the various engineers-something that other writings lead me to know is patently untrue.  While I can appreciate the desire of the authors to produce an account free from mudslinging, the book does have a “nicey-nice” ring to it that got a bit too saccharine at times.  However, the passion of those involved in the early space programs, the spirit of the unknown that drove them, and their sheer love of what they were doing, comes through clearly in the exciting flow of the narrative.  This book made me laugh, cry, and cheer, despite prose that verged on melodramatic at times.
Moon Shot focuses on the United States’ side of the space race, but if you are interested in a balanced account which includes the parallel history of the Soviet side (albeit with much less information from the U.S. viewpoint than Moon Shot), I would like to suggest Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race.  This book was written by U.S. astronaut David Scott-Apollo 15 commander, and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov-the first man to walk in space, and tells their simultaneous stories from opposing sides of the Iron Curtain.  These two men also worked together on joint U.S. and Soviet projects later in their careers.  As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I found this collaboration absolutely engrossing, although, like Moon Shot, it is not the most well-written of books.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE PRAGUE CEMETERY by Umberto Eco ✰✰✰

In general I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco, and as such I was eagerly awaiting the release of the English translation of The Prague Cemetery.  I am sad to say that all of those elements that I love about Eco’s writing-the intelligent plotting, the dense prose, the belief in his reader’s ability to follow where he leads-have been carried to excess with this one.
The story is narrated by three voices, two of which are one person with a split personality, and the third is an unreliable voice of no discernible provenance.  I must give a warning here about the main character.  Eco has stated that he attempted to create the most despicable of all literary characters.  The book begins with a rant that, had I not agreed to review the novel, would have had me tossing this one aside.  If you are Jewish, German, French, Italian, or female and are sensitive to vitriol, the opening pages might offend you greatly.  In point of fact I must admit that as the pages roll on the reader can see that stereotypes of prejudices are being played upon, and the reader begins to perceive the shape of a truly reprehensible character and ceases for the most part to be offended personally.  The one thing which continued to cause me a fair measure of unease as I read is the virulent anti-semitism.  I know that distrust and dislike of the Jewish people has been rampant throughout European history, and I realize that the plot of this novel centers around events purportedly reactionary to those anti-semitic feelings.  However, the hatred is so much at the forefront of this book, that it almost made me the reader feel complicit by continuing to read.  The foreknowledge that that is the author’s intent does not make me feel any less uncomfortable.
The device of a split personality is interesting, and works with the conspiracy theory nature of the plot.  As for the plot, the reader is told up front that the book is created from real historical figures (only the main character and a few very minor ones are not drawn from actual people), and the plot structure is based on factual events with many conspiracy theories interwoven.  The time frame in question is the later half of the nineteenth century, the setting is Italy, and the characters include Garibaldi and his Redshirts.  Conspiracy theory is a fascination of mine, and I trusted Eco to write it well.  This is the point where I must admit that I only made it to page 153 of 467.  I went to the library last night and browsed through the Italian history books related to this era, hoping to demystify the plot somewhat by familiarizing myself with the players and events.  Then I curled up again with the book, hoping my further education would make the book more accessible.  After a couple of hours I put the book down and came to a decision-I must read a complete nonfiction work about the time, place, and people in question in order to fully understand and enjoy the conspiracy theories which Eco weaves through them.  Too much is assumed by the author with regards to this reader’s knowledge of Italian history.  I wonder perhaps, given that Eco writes in Italian for Italians, if this knowledge is basic to their curriculum, and it only becomes an issue in translation for foreigners.
At the moment I have given the book three stars, for I simply can not give a master of the pen like Eco any less.  My plan is to read, in the next few months, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870 by Edgar Holt, a readable, concise work covering the events of Eco’s book, and then re-read this book by Eco.  If you do not mind feeling a little lost in your history/conspiracy theories, or if you know a sufficient amount of the time and place in question, and if you love deep, dark novels, this will likely be your kind of read.  Otherwise, I would approach this one with caution and preparation.

Friday, November 4, 2011

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern ✰✰✰✰

Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel is, for me, full of strengths but not without a few faults as well.  Set in a non-traditional circus-you won’t find a single clown or elephant here-the novel interweaves elements of the late nineteenth century fascination with the showman magician; immersive, theatrical creations; and a love story.
The plot and setting are fairly simple to describe.  Two rival magicians rear and train two younger practitioners from childhood, one his daughter and the other an orphan, with the sole goal of their competing against one another in a battle of magical prowess.  One of the greatest producers of theatrical spectacles in their day is led by the elder magicians to create the incomparable Night Circus, which will act as the stage for the showdown.  Erin Morgenstern has a background in theater and dimensional art and it radiates through her circus.  Each tent, created in turn by the rival magicians, is an enchanted world unto itself and the circus goers aren’t the only ones eager to enter the black and white canvas doors.  The reader can not help but be left breathless in awe at the intricate imagination of this talented writer.  Ms. Morgenstern creates an alternate reality of charm, elegance, and illusion, in turns coloring her black and white setting in tones of spellbinding beauty and somber foreboding.
Two chronological threads are written into the novel.  In an interview, author Morgenstern states that she used this device to give a sense of mobility within the story, similar to the mobility of the circus itself.  I personally find it a bit confusing to keep straight, but as the two threads begin to converge it is easy to see why she used the structure: the reader feels tension building as you begin to wonder if the plot lines are heading for an ethereal commingling or a collision of catastrophic proportion.
Short allegorical sections scattered between chapters provide a point of convergence between the circus theme and the story.  Once the reader realizes that these sections are glimpses at impending events, their significance becomes magnified in their role of foreshadowing.  In addition, these sections are used to lend a dreamy, sensory mood to the novel.
There is romance here as well, and it enfolds itself quite naturally within the evolution of the tale.  At times fraught with tension and at others spun with delicacy, the passion between the two central characters is written with restraint and manages to feel wholly believable in a venue of suspended credulity.
Despite all these strong points, I can not give this novel five stars for two reasons.  First, there is excessive use of tired metaphors and descriptive passages that bring to mind contrived examples from a grammar book.  Overwrought might be a good choice of adjective.  Yet in select passages Morgenstern’s writing seems pitch perfect, such as this quote, which drew me in on page four:
The circus looks abandoned and empty.  But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves.  A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.
Does that line not awaken your senses and make them tingle?  Overall it is my opinion that the originality and imaginative power of the novel more than compensate for the over-written sections.
The second, and primary, reason that I can not give the book five stars is the ending.  All the loose ends are neatly tied up with a bow, which I appreciate, so that is not my issue.  My issue is that the ending is passed off to a character who I judge unnecessary to make the conclusion work.  I understand the role this character plays in the plot, and indeed in the structure, of the novel, but the large role the character is given at the book’s climax seems contrived to me.  It almost has the sense of a movie part which was originally written fairly small, but the big name star that is being wooed to play the role says that their name will only go on the dotted line if they get to star in the pivotal moment.  There are other players, in my opinion, who could have filled the role more believably.  I am not trying to say that this is one of those books where the ending is so disenchanting that the book is ruined.  Far from it.  There are a couple of clever twists, and the structure itself is good; I simply don’t care for who Ms. Morgenstern chose to place center stage.
This novel is recommended for all mature readers.  There is one sex scene and several instances of innuendo, but they are fairly restrained and I would not hesitate to allow my high schooler to read this work, despite being a rather conservative parent.
I laud Erin Morgenstern’s strong freshman effort, and though magical realism is not always my cup of cocoa, I will be on the lookout to snatch up a galley of her next novel.  This one I borrowed from the library, but it is going on my purchase wish list, as I foresee it becoming a personal “comfort book” and one I loan to friends in need of an escape.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

TIGRESS OF FORLI by Elizabeth Lev ✰✰✰✰

What better match-up could one hope for than author/art historian Elizabeth Lev and the  venerable Renaissance countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici?  Under Lev’s artistic eye, the countess herself and the age in which she lived, late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italy, pulse with life.

Caterina is, without any doubt, one of history’s most amazing women.  In a time and place where alliance with the ruling party of the moment was a matter not just of prosperity, but of survival, and the pyramid of power held all the stability of an edifice built on quicksand, Caterina thrived.  As a woman, her task was much more difficult; time and again she was subjected to the poor decisions of the men in her life.  Other times she took the reins in her own hands and rode for the battlements.  Literally.  Widowed Renaissance women were recycled by their fathers or brothers into further marriage alliances, often marrying several times under these circumstances.  Not Caterina-she made one such marriage and then married twice for love, once into a very advantageous joining with the de Medici clan.  Born a Sforza, with all the warrior spirit of her father, Caterina was forced to watch in powerless frustration as her children and those given guardianship over them exhibited their spineless Riario tendencies in the face of she who burned to fight.

Elizabeth Lev’s portrayal of Caterina is very balanced.  It is clear that she greatly admires her subject, but she realizes that there were times in her life when Caterina made some serious errors in judgement and when she let her passionate nature, both for love and vengeance, get the better of her.  Due to the author’s background, extensive coverage is given to the art, architecture and fashion of the times.  It is a marvelous eye to have cast on the era-I especially love the descriptions of the extravagant gowns worn by the countess.

Overall, this is a well-written, easily digested biography.  There were a couple of things which kept it from being a five star book, but by a very narrow margin (I would give the book four and a half stars if I could).  First, the cast of players is huge and many of the characters are interrelated by marriage and blood.  A list of characters and some genealogical charts would have been most appreciated, as there were many instances where I lost the thread of things.  As mine was a review copy, this issue might very well be resolved in the final printing.  My copy only had a very basic map of the Italian states, which was not near as useful as these other aids would have been.  Do not let this one element deter you from picking up this page-turner of a narrative history, however.  Caterina was an incredible woman, and Elizabeth Lev is an author I hope to see more from in the future.