Friday, February 22, 2013

13. Prague Winter

A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948

By:  Madeline Albright
Rated: 5 Stars
Hardback and Audiobook

A very good friend recommended this book to me and even loaned me a copy of it because she thought I would like it.  She was right.  I liked it so much I used one of my audible credits to purchase it in audio format.  I am so glad I did because the books was read by Madeline Albright herself.

This book is basically a history of Czechoslovakia during the periods before, during and after WW2.  I found this interesting because the events leading up to both wars and their aftermaths have had a lot of impact on where we find ourselves today.  It's my contention that you cannot fully understand what is happening around you today unless you know what happened yesterday.  That's just my personal take however and probably an excuse to myself for my fascination with conflict when I consider myself to be a pacifist.

By reading the book herself and thereby describing the events in her own voice she transformed the story from being dry history into her story.  Sometimes you could tell by her voice that many of the events she was describing were very painful.  I especially enjoyed the parts relating to her childhood during WWII.  The one thing that I do not understand is why her parents kept so much of her families personal history from their children.  I am sure they had their reasons but still it is hard for me to understand.  I am about seven years younger than Madeline Albright but I still have some very vivid memories of those days.  But I grew up in the oh so safe American mid-west so if I have memories I can imagine that people who lived through those times must have memories vivid enough to evoke some strong emotions.

Publisher's Summary

Before Madeleine Albright turned twelve, her life was shaken by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia - the country where she was born - the Battle of Britain, the near total destruction of European Jewry, the Allied victory in World War II, the rise of communism, and the onset of the Cold War.
Albright's experiences, and those of her family, provide a lens through which to view the most tumultuous dozen years in modern history. Drawing on her memory, her parents' written reflections, interviews with contemporaries, and newly available documents, Albright recounts a tale that is by turns harrowing and inspiring. Prague Winter is an exploration of the past with timeless dilemmas in mind and, simultaneously, a journey with universal lessons that is intensely personal.
The book takes readers from the Bohemian capital's thousand-year-old castle to the bomb shelters of London, from the desolate prison ghetto of TerezÍn to the highest councils of European and American government. Albright reflects on her discovery of her family's Jewish heritage many decades after the war, on her Czech homeland's tangled history, and on the stark moral choices faced by her parents and their generation. Often relying on eyewitness descriptions, she tells the story of how millions of ordinary citizens were ripped from familiar surroundings and forced into new roles as exiled leaders and freedom fighters, resistance organizers and collaborators, victims and killers. These events of enormous complexity are nevertheless shaped by concepts familiar to any growing child: fear, trust, adaptation, the search for identity, the pressure to conform, the quest for independence, and the difference between right and wrong.
"No one who lived through the years of 1937 to 1948," Albright writes, "was a stranger to profound sadness. Millions of innocents did not survive, and their deaths must never be forgotten. Today we lack the power to reclaim lost lives, but we have a duty to learn all that we can about what happened and why." At once a deeply personal memoir and an incisive work of history, Prague Winter serves as a guide to the future through the lessons of the past - as seen through the eyes of one of the international community's most respected and fascinating figures.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

12. The House Girl

By:  Tara Conklin
Rated: 3 Stars
Audio Book

This book looked really great from the summary I read before I purchased it.  And in a lot of ways it was a pretty good book.  It's just that I had to keep suspending my disbelief so often that I finally got tired of doing it.  But let me be clear, I am not complaining about the writing.  But while I thought this book was well written it could have definitely used some professional editing to keep the plot from drifting off into implausibility.  Had this not been basically such a good book (interesting plot line, good writing) I could have shrugged this book off and I would not now be going to all the trouble of writing a long review to critique it.

The story of the slave Josephine Bell was the most interesting to me. I thought the parts of the book relating to her life very poignant and probably basically true to life.  But even here I had to quibble with the fact that she was so educated and had so much opportunity to spend time not to mention access to art supplies that she was able to produce the body of work that was apparently floating around in the 21st century.  Also the fact that at her death she was still only 17 years old.  Still, if one was able to suspend ones mild disbelief it was a very good story line.

Lina came across as even more unbelievable.  She didn't fit the type one would expect to have even been hired at a high powered NY law firm that specializes in corporate litigation. The amount of the damages being sued for also struck me as highly unlikely.  No one, especially the Government is going to sit still for a suit asking for that kind of damages without pulling some major strings to stifle it and the fact the author had all the attorney's sitting around with sugar plumbs dancing in their heads  just did not work for me.  High powered corporate lawyers ought to have a firmer grasp on reality than the ones in this book did.  Still, they are part the 100% and reality is not their strong suit so . . . . . . . .

Also that all the research necessary to prove this case just fell into Lina's lap from a source that was least likely to help her was the final straw for me.  And last but not least, I thought the ending was messy.  There was not closure to any of the plot lines.

Still, this was still an OK read.  I think I am complaining because I think it could have been so much more. 

Publisher's Summary

Two remarkable women, separated by more than a century, whose lives unexpectedly intertwine....
The year is 2004: Lina Sparrow is an ambitious young lawyer working on a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves.
The year is 1852: Josephine is a 17-year-old house slave who tends to the mistress of a Virginia tobacco farm - an aspiring artist named Lu Anne Bell.
It is through her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers a controversy rocking the art world: Art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of the slaves who worked her Virginia tobacco farm, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine.
A descendant of Josephine's would be the perfect face for the lawsuit - if Lina can find one. But nothing is known about Josephine's fate following Lu Anne Bell's death in 1852. In piecing together Josephine's story, Lina embarks on a journey that will lead her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother's mysterious death 20 years before.
Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love, and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and asks whether truth can be more important than justice.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

11. The Whistling Season

By:  Ivan Doig
Rated:  4 Stars
Audio Book

I guess I need to remind myself more often that I don't like Westerns because I really enjoyed this book.  It's a coming of age/Little House on the Prairie/My Antonia kind of book with a little twist at the end.  It's also a peek into rural life in Montana 100 years ago and a nostalgic look back at the one room school houses of the time.

My one mild complaint is that while Doig does an excellent job of describing time and place his attempt at adding a couple rascals into the story came off as far fetched.  Still it is a book of fiction after all and while I rolled my eyes a little I still enjoyed the book.

Publisher's Summary
When a widowed rancher hires a housekeeper to help with his three young sons, he finds her to be cheerful and competent. Yet she is concealing a colorful and infamous past. Filled with humor and hardship, this novel sings with what the author calls "a poetry of the vernacular".

Saturday, February 16, 2013

10. The Distant Land of My Father: A Novel of Shanghai

By:  Bo Caldwell
Rated: 5 Stars

I rated this book 5 stars for the fact that it made me think so much about the characters and what motivated them.  This would be an excellent book for a group as there is a lot to talk about and it would be interesting to what others thought about the book.

My reaction is that Anna's father Joe is one of the most conflicted, yet charasmatic characters I have read about in a . . . .  well I can't remember when a character made me like him, deeply dislike him and at times felt very sorry for him.   In fact in spite of flashes of intelligence I though he was really rather dumb, self absorbed and certainly clueless and insensitive about how his actions effected the people who loved him.  Still, I had to like him. sigh

Where this book really shone for me was in time and place.  Bo Caldwell did a marvelous job of putting the reader in Shanghi during WW2 and the years leading up to it.  I think she accurately  described the mind set of the international community during those days.

This was not an easy read for me in that my emotions were engaged on  almost every page.  Even when the action was slow I could feel the tension and undercurrents swirling around the characters and the feeling of waiting for the shoe to drop.  I highly recommend this book.

Book Description

 September 1, 2001
For Anna, the narrator of Bo Caldwell's richly lyrical and vivid first novel, growing up in the magical world of Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s creates a special bond between her and her father. He is the son of missionaries, a smuggler, and a millionaire who leads a charmed but secretive life. When the family flees to Los Angeles in the face of the Japanese occupation, he chooses to remain, believing his connections and luck will keep him safe. He's wrong. He survives, only to again choose Shanghai over his family during the Second World War. Anna and her father reconnect late in his life, when she finally has a family of her own, but it is only when she discovers his extensive journals that she is able to fully understand him and the reasons for his absences. With the intensity and appeal of When We Were Orphans, also set in Shanghai at the same time, The Distant Land of My Father tells a moving and unforgettable story about a most unusual father-daughter relationship. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

9. Voice of the Violin

By:  Andrea Camilleri
Rated 3.5 Stars
Paperback Loan from Connie

I liked this book slightly less than I did The Terra Cotta Dog and The Snack Thief.  I thought it was kind of slow.  Also I had a feeling that Montalbano was going to mess up with Livia.  I am hoping that in future books he can bail himself out.

Book Description:

 As the fourth mystery in the internationally bestselling series opens, Montalbano’s gruesome discovery of a lovely, naked young woman suffocated in her bed immediately sets him on a search for her killer. Among the suspects are her aging husband, a famous doctor; a shy admirer, now disappeared; an antiques-dealing lover from Bologna; and the victim’s friend Anna, whose charms Montalbano cannot help but appreciate. But it is a mysterious, reclusive violinist who holds the key to the murder.

Friday, February 8, 2013

9. Horses Don't Fly

By:  Frederick Libby
Rated: 4 Stars

While Fred's experiences as a member of the RAF were interesting they were fairly typical of what most flyers of that time went through.  What I found particularly interesting about this book was his experiences as a child growing up in a motherless household with a loving Father and brother.  His upbringing was without much feminine influence in his life and I think it gave him a rootlessness and recklessness that affected most of the decisions he made as a young man.  After he was in the war for a while he grew up pretty quick.

I didn't realize how easy it was at the time for men to cross the border from the US to Canada and to enlist in the Canadian army.  I knew it had been done but before I read this book I had not idea it had been so easy.  I enjoyed this book.

Publisher's Description:

Growing up on a ranch in Sterling, Colorado, Frederick Libby tamed countless horses, drove cattle, and even roped an antelope. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Canadian army with the same happy-go-lucky daring and grit with which he approached all things. In France, he became an aviator with the Royal Flying Corp, downing an enemy plane on his first day of battle over the Somme. He went on to become an ace, with 24 victories to his credit, just two less than Captain Eddie Rickenbacher. This is a rare piece of Americana, told in as pure and compelling a voice from the vernacular heart of this country as you will ever hear.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

8. Where have You Gone Bernadette

By: Maria Semple
Rated 1 Star
Kindle Book

In spite of all the good reviews his book got on amazon I found it boring in the extreme.   I finally gave up on it.  Generally I like books that are over-the-top" but this book was over-the-top in that all the characters came across to me as extremely shallow.  The kind of people with way too much income and who think that all of life comes down to just being able to write a check which will entitle you to having your smallest desire granted regardless of how it will effect anyone else.

I guess the whole book is just not my kind of thing.I didn't like any of those people.

Book Description:

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

Monday, February 4, 2013

7. The Snack Thief

By: Andrea Camilleri
 Rated: 4 Stars
 Paperback Loan from Connie

Montalbano is such a great and quirky character. He's wonderful in so many ways --excepting his foul mouth which I find out of place for some reason,
 his love of fine food to his ability to see smells in color.  It's better in some ways than The Terra Cota Dog. I found Montalbano's refusal to visit his dying Father because he loved him too much to see him at death's door a little odd.  Surely the comfort he could have provided his father would have off set his "discomfort" but I am chalking this up to the possibility that his reaction is a cultural thing.  I did like his reaction to "The Snack Thief: but I am not altogether sure he is not really going to marry Livia when it comes to the sticking point.  But I did like the mystery very much and loved some of the secondary characters especially Signora Cozzo.

Book Description:

In the third book in Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, the urbane and perceptive Sicilian detective exposes a viper's nest of government corruption and international intrigue in a compelling new case. When an elderly man is stabbed to death in an elevator and a crewman on an Italian fishing trawler is machine-gunned by a Tunisian patrol boat off Sicily's coast, only Montalbano suspects the link between the two incidents. His investigation leads to the beautiful Karima, an impoverished housecleaner and sometime prostitute, whose young son steals other schoolchildren's midmorning snacks. But Karima disappears, and the young snack thief's life—as well as Montalbano's—is on the line..