Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Review of In the Garden of Beasts

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is Isaac's Storm, the story of the great hurricane that obliterated Galveston, Texas in a single night in September 1900, written by Erik Larson.  I also enjoyed The Devil in the White City, and generally find Larson's writing engaging and readable.  He writes nonfiction in the same way Jon Krakauer does - you feel like you're reading a novel and are immediately taken to the place where events are unfolding.  So when I was looking for my next book, I searched to see if Larson had written anything new, and found In the Garden of Beasts.  Although it wasn't something that seemed highly compelling from a subject-matter perspective, I trusted that I would still find it interesting and engaging.  And I did.

Larson tells the story of the Dodd family from 1933-1937, when William E. Dodd left his life as a professor at the University of Chicago to become the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to WWII.  His wife, grown daughter and son move with him, and the book follows the family's (namely his daughter's) exploits and challenges as Hitler grew ever stronger and his maniacal hold on Germany and oppression of Jews grew.

This is a difficult book to review because of the numerous threads that run throughout the story.  First there is Dodd, a frugal, Depression-era man who is acutely aware of the insidiousness of Hitler and his regime, yet unable to gain any traction or respect from within the State Department, and who harbors his own kind of antisemitism.   Then there is his daughter, Martha, his daughter, who is 'taken' by the Nazi lifestyle and enraptured by the power and influence of the many high-ranking officers she brushes elbows with (and more - turns out she slept with quite a few of them too).  And then there are all of the players that weave their way in and out of Ambassador Dodd and Martha's lives as Germany continues to advance towards war while the rest of the world watches. 

I think this last thread was what I actually found most interesting about the book, and where I learned the most: for years the world looked on as Hitler lined up his country and prepared for war, all the while continuing to repress and make his intentions towards Jews very clear.  Yet no one acted.  Dodd saw the writing on the wall and tried, in vain, to get his country to be more proactive.  But even his efforts were weak, at best.  No one thought Hitler would remain in power - he was too crazy, too uneducated, too fascist.  But he did, and he managed to bring almost an entire country and population with him under using oppression, fear, and lawlessness.  By the time the rest of the world finally took notice, it was too late, and WWII was upon them.

Overall, Larson didn't disappoint - I was engaged and interested to learn about the Dodds and their experience, and how their actions and roles impacted the events unfolding at the time (and ultimately, history).


Review of The Weird Sisters

I'm now on maternity leave with three weeks until my due date, Tessa is in day care, and I have this eery feeling of having too much time on my hands.  I therefore have no good excuse for not updating my book blog.

Jason picked up The Weird Sisters somewhat randomly when he went looking for books for me.  It's probably not one I would have chosen from the back cover, so I was eager to give it a shot.  And it was OK.  Not great, but not terrible.  Set in a small-town Ohio, it tells the story of three sisters who have all come home at difficult times in their lives.  Their mother is sick, and their quirky Shakespeare-professor father is struggling to care for her on his own.  Rosalind (Rose), the eldest, is an uptight control freak. Bianca (Bean) is the wild middle child, bucking the rules to set herself apart.  And Cordelia (Cordy), is the babied youngest, irresponsible and a bit flighty.

Bean returns home under the auspices of wanting to help care for her mother, but really because she is fleeing New York City after having bilked the law firm for whom she worked out of several thousand dollars to cover her expensive NYC lifestyle.  Cordy shows up in the middle of the night not having showered for days from her Deadhead/roaming the country/sleeping with random men lifestyle, pregnant and scared.  Rose, who has never left town (although she no longer lives at home), is missing her fiance, who has taken a temporary professorship in Oxford.  Needless to say, no one is happy, and that sets the tone for the entire book.

The sisters are not close, and they never have been.  What unfolds is a bit of a reckoning for all of them -- with their own demons, with the reality of their lives and where they all find themselves, with their long-held resentments and frustrations with one another, and ultimately, with themselves.  I found the self-reflection and examination that each sister is forced to conduct in the face of the other sisters and their mother's illness quite interesting, if not somewhat predictable.  It was difficult to 'like' anyone, which I always find difficult, as it's hard to really enjoy a book when you can't truly empathize with the characters because they're so unlikeable.  But I did want things to work out for each of them, and was therefore willing to read to the end and see how things unfolded.  Overall, this isn't a book I would recommend to someone, but it wasn't one that I would fling across a room either.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review of The Forgotten Garden

My lovely husband bought this book for me because I kept forgetting to pick up something new to read. It sounded compelling enough from the back page, and was easy to get into. Unfortunately, it wasn't a great book. The story begins with a mystery in 1913 - a little girl is found alone on a pier in Australia after a ship from England has arrived and unloaded. She doesn't know her name and no one claims her, so the harbour master and his wife take her in and they raise her as their own. They name the girl Nell, and when she is 21 her father spills the beans and tells her that she is not their biological daughter. The story jumps back and forth between 1913, 1975, and 2005 as the mystery of Nell's provenance is revealed through her own travels to England and then her granddaughters efforts after Nell's death. Although it was fun to read about England circa 1913, there was nothing especially interesting or compelling about the storyline or any of the characters other than wanting to know whose Nell's parents were and why she had been given up. If I had to find one word to describe it, I'd use 'blah'.

MY RATING: 4/10.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review of State of Wonder

I was one of the few people I know who didn't absolutely love Bel Canto, so I was a little unsure about picking up State of Wonder. All I knew was that I'd been playing online Scrabble and Words With Friends way too much before bed, and I needed a new, good novel. And State of Wonder was fun. Marina is a medical doctor-turned-pharmacologist who is sent by her pharmaceutical company to find a rogue scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, in the heart of the Amazon. Dr. Swenson has been working to synthesize a fertility drug from the bark of trees that results in prolonged fertility in a unique indigenous tribe deep in the Amazon. The company has not heard from Dr. Swenson in months save a recent letter informing the company that Marina's colleague, Dr. Anders Eckmann, who was sent prior to Marina to follow up on Dr. Swenson's progress, has died of fever. And you'll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Although not a feat of literary genius, State of Wonder quickly transports the reader into the hot, humid, and complex world of the city of Manaus, Brazil's gateway to the Amazon, and then the insect-ridden, snake-infested, malarial-haunted forests of the Amazon. The mystery surrounding Dr. Eckmann's death and the odd behavior of Dr. Swenson make for a good plot, and the creativity of the fertility sub-theme and everything that goes with it is what makes this book better than average. This is the perfect vacation-on-the-beach book, and one I would recommend if you're looking for a different kind of story.


Review of The Tiger's Wife

I think this book was on every single "Best Book of 2011" list, so it was inevitable that I would read it (I'm a sucker for prize-winning books). And it did not disappoint. Although I found it a little hard to get into, once I was in, I was in. The story follows Natalia, a most likely Serbian medical doctor in what is most likely post-war Bosnia (all of the geographic location named have been fictionalized). She and her colleague and friend have gone to a small town to immunize orphans at a local church. Prior to their departure, Natalia learns that her grandfather has died in a small town not too far from their destination, and she goes in search of his belongings and closure. Woven throughout is the story of Natalia's grandfather, growing up in a small remote town in the mountains, and the winter when an escaped tiger from the city zoo made his home in the surrounding countryside.

Obreht weaves multiple layers into one novel in a way that is not forced or overwhelming, but just complex enough to keep the reader interested and involved. There is the relationship and complex dynamic between Natalia and her grandfather; the sad story of the tiger and the townspeople he terrified or befriended; the story of the 'deathless man'; the gypsies who search for their loved ones in long-overgrown fields; and Natalia's own story of medical school in war-torn Serbia (or thereabouts). All of these seemingly disparate narratives are woven together by good, solid writing and strong character development. I can see why the book as received as many accolades as it did.


Review of How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk

Ah, my first foray into parenting books. And I'm so glad I took the plunge. Upon learning that our second baby is due in July, a friend recommended a sister-book by the same authors about sibling rivalry, and I decided to pick up both. And I'm so glad I did. How to Talk... is relevant not only to parents hoping to communicate well with their children, but people wanting to communicate well with anyone in their lives. The basic tenets of their philosophy is to learn how to express anger and frustration without being hurtful, setting realistic limits while not having your children hate you, resolving conflicts peacefully, and learning how to cope with your children's negative feelings. The fact is - these are skills everyone could use learning, whether you're dealing with children OR adults. And the amusing thing is, not only have I started using some of the skills with Tessa, but I've also found myself using them at work during difficult meetings or instances where resolution was required but some people were acting 'childlike'.

To put some learning into real terms, here's an example of how the book helped: Tessa and I were in her room. She wanted a puzzle that was underneath a book, so she took the book and flung it onto the floor, thereby giving her access to the puzzle. "Tessa, please pick the book up," I asked after ducking out of the way of the oncoming book. "No," she said looking straight at me. Hmmmm...how to handle this? So I reached into my new bag of tricks - instead of asking her again and pushing the point, I switched tactics to describe the situation and how it could be resolved. "Tessa, books don't belong on the floor, they belong on your shelf," I said. And without fanfare or complaint, she simply reached down, picked up the book, and put it on her shelf. Voila! Conflict averted; lesson learned. I've used this approach countless times since: "Tessa, the water has completely drained in your tub and you're still sitting in it," and out she gets. "Tessa, you have a toothbrush in your hand and not in your mouth," and into the mouth it goes.

This is not to say that putting all of the tips into practice is easy. It's not. And I find myself having to peek at the book often. But I'll take that any day over tantrums and pulling my hair out (which will, of course, still happen).

MY RATING: 9/10 (only because some of the drawings are a little gay)

Review of Suite Francaise

Thanks Jason. Suite Francaise was a Christmas present and it was just what I needed after the last book of 2011. What a beautiful book. Nemirovsky wrote it frantically from the unoccupied zone of France in 1941. In 1942 the Nazis invaded, and she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Although she was a well-known and celebrated author of her time, this book was lost until 64 years later, when it was discovered and published. When you know this before even turning a page, it influences your perspective. What kind of conditions was she writing under, having been forced to flee her home, friends and family in Paris? She must have been acutely aware of the impending danger and overwhelmed by the events in her life. Whatever she was feeling was channeled into an incredible novel that follows several families as they flee the Nazi invasion of Paris into the French countryside in June 1940, and the year that follows in a small Nazi-occupied town.

Nemirovsky was a beautiful writer, capturing emotions and human interactions (both tender and cruel) in a realistic and unpretentious way. But what struck me most about the book was her focus on the environment. The countryside of France is really the antagonist of this book, beautiful, fresh, fragrant and lush in spring; hot, sticky and oppressing in summer; and volatile, unrelenting, and overwhelming in fall and winter. Nemirovsky's love for her country and its beauty is obvious with every description of a storm, flower, wind or garden, and this love for life and the world around was often heartbreaking to read, knowing that for her it ended all to short. Suite Francaise must have been Nemirovsky's escape from what was going on around her; I only wish she had truly escaped...and survived.

MY RATING: 9/10.

2012 Books

1. Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
2. How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk - Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
3. The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht
4. State of Wonder - Ann Patchett 
5. The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton
6. The Weird Sisters - Eleanor Brown
7. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin - Erik Larson
8. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand