Monday, January 27, 2014

The Egg Hunt

In City of Thieves by David Benioff, Lev is a boy in his late teens who is living in Leningrad during the siege.  His father has disappeared, and his mother and sister left to find safety away from the city, leaving Lev a virtual, if not a true, orphan.  When a dead German paratrooper falls from the sky outside his building, Lev and his friends break curfew to see what they can claim from his body.  Lev is caught and arrested, and faces execution for looting.  Soon a Red Army desserter, Kolya, is thrown into Lev's jail cell.  Kolya and Lev are given a reprieve, and told that if they can just bring a dozen eggs to a certain colonel by the following Thursday, they will be set free.  Of course, finding a dozen eggs in Leningrad during the siege is no easy task.

Kolya and Lev are given a letter from the colonel allowing them passage out of Leningrad, and they are off, searching the Nazi filled countryside for eggs.  Along the way they encounter a cast of characters - some who help them and some who make their journey more difficult.  If this is sounding like a chummy little adventure, remember that they are in the middle of World War II, everyone is starving, it is winter, and the Nazis are everywhere. 

This story of the siege of Leningrad is completely different from Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.   City is a men's coming of age story, and Winter Garden is a mother's version of the siege.  Both stories were great, and they really compliment each other with their differences.  A reader looking for more action would prefer City of Thieves.

While I really liked City, I would have liked it even more if it was true.  Benioff teases the reader by starting off with a prologue where a young writer named David is interviewing his grandfather about his life in Leningrad.  It was enough to make me think that City of Thieves is David Benioff's grandfather's story, much like Everything is Illuminated is based on Jonathan Safran Foer's grandfather's experience during the war.  Unfortunately, Benioff insists that the story is pure fiction.  I was willing to accept some of the more unlikely plot twists, and was especially impressed with Benioff's grandmother, when I thought that most of the story was true.  After all, if Louis Zamperini's story is true, what is so strange about two young men escaping execution by finding eggs? 

This book is one off my list for the Rewind Challenge.  Since I checked the audio book out of my library and listened to it that way, it also counts for the Audiobook Challenge and the I Love Library Books Challenge.  I'm moving right along. . .

Next Up On CD:  Manson:  The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

Still Reading:  The Vanishing by Wendy Webb

Friday, January 24, 2014

Brooklyn Affairs

The Love Affiars of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman is a book about Nate, a youngish writer who has paid his dues with book reviews and freelance work, and has a new novel about to hit the stands.  He is a bit of a playa in his set of over educated navel gazers, and when we meet him he is single.  This quickly changes when he meets Hannah at an ex-girlfriend's dinner party.  Hannah is everything that Nate typically doesn't date.  She is low key, smart, interesting and straight forward. 

At first Nate is really excited about the relationship, but as time goes on, he keeps trying to find things that are wrong.  He thinks about what he hasn't liked about other girlfriends, like that they nagged him.  Then he tests Hannah to see if he can make her nag him. Hannah is in a no win situation, where if she doesn't nag him, Nate will keep behaving badly until she finally does, at which point he can pounce on her for being a nag, just like all the rest.

As the title suggests (blatantly) the book is all about Nate's relationship drama.  When I read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I just didn't get it.  I know that it is supposed to be a comedy of manners, but I didn't find it funny.  Around that time, the New York Times reviewed Nathaniel P., and said that it was a modern day comedy of manners, set in the Brooklyn literary scene.  I would think that people who like Jane Austen's stories, but are looking for something a little more modern would like Nathaniel P.  It is interesting that Nathaniel P. is written in a Jane Austen style, but from the man's perspective, and that it is written by a woman.  I found myself wondering if men (or some men anyway) actually do think like Nate, or if the story is really telling how women believe men like Nate think.  Whichever it is, I frequently thought about a certain person who I dated in college while reading about Nate's manipulations.  Waldman's telling sounded about right to me.

Although it is said to be a comedy of manners, there wasn't that much that I found all that funny.  There were just a couple of pages that I turned down with sort of funny quotes.  The first is Nate complaining about Hannah, and saying "Apparently, no woman in the early twenty-first century is the kind of woman who (a) wants a boyfriend or (b) wants to talk about her relationship, no matter how much she (a) wants a boyfriend and (b) wants to talk about her relationship." 

The second quote is just two pages later where Nate is being deliberately rude to Hannah.  "'It's fine,' he said in the kind of cold, flat voice that only someone with serious Asperger's would take at face value.  Hannah's expression indicated to Nate that she did not suffer from Asperger's syndrome."  I think that one was funnier in context.

I was really looking forward to Nathaniel P., because it seems like all of my favorite authors (except Jess Walter) are living in Brooklyn, and reading a book set among them would be fun.  But what was I thinking?  That the characters would go on a double date with JSF and Nicole Krauss?  Yes, most of Nate's friends are authors or in the publishing industry, but somehow the story was lacking an element of excitement or activity that in my mind at least should have been there.  Waldman is the expert - she is part of that Brooklyn literary society, and should certainly know its pulse.  Maybe there's really not much action, with all of the authors feeling a certain resentment toward each other, and writing on different schedules and at different places.

Nathaniel P. is the second book that I have finished for the I Love Library Books Challenge.  28 more to go!

Next Up:  The Vanishing by Wendy Webb

Still Listening to:  City of Thieves by David Benioff

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The War Part 2

A lot has happened between the end of  Fall of Giants, and the start of the sequel, Winter of the World, by Ken Follett.  The whole next generation has grown up, and as expected, they are old enough to fight in the second World War.  We catch up with some of our favorites from the first book, and we lose some others.  

Much of Winter focuses on Maud Fitzherbert, who became Maud Von Ulrich in Fall.  She and her husband, Walter, are living in Berlin with their teenage children, Carla and Erik.  Erik is enthralled by the Nazis, and quickly joins their ranks.  Carla starts off as a young girl, but is a nurse as the war gets underway, and later enters politics.

We also reunite with Maud's brother, Fitz, who lives with his wife, Bea, and their son, Boy, in England.  This family becomes entangled with Lev Peshkov's American family when Lev's daughter, Daisy, visits London.  Fitz had a child with Ethel Williams in Fall, and in Winter, that child, Lloyd, is an important player.  The Williams and Fitzherbert families remain entwined in Winter, with Boy and Lloyd living very different lives, but finding it hard to get away from each other none the less. 

Lev Peshkov also has two illegitimate sons, Gregory, who lives in America, and Vladimir, who lives in Russia.  These boys are both strong characters in the novel, with Gregory drifting between politics and physics, and Vladimir becoming a skilled spy, who can't help questioning his loyalty to his country.

Finally, the Dewar family in America is even more important in Winter than they were in Fall, with Gus Dewar serving as a senator, his son, Woody, working in Washington and his other son, Chuck, serving in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii.

Of course, there are also lots of new characters who make appearances.  Some of my favorite characters from Fall did not have very important roles in Winter.  One such character is Grigori Peshkov, who is only relevant in Winter as the step-father of Vladimir.  Another is Billy Williams,  who is just a sideline character in Winter.  I missed Billy more than Grigori, probably because Vladimir was a such great character that he made up for his father's loss.

The fun of this story is to guess how the characters will find themselves connected, and I'm not going to spoil that for you.  The nut shell synopses of this 940 page book is this:

The story starts with the Nazis rising to power in Germany.  The Nazis close Maud's newspaper, and her husband's cousin, Robert, is persecuted for being gay.  Ethel is a member of Parliament in England, and is doing everything that she can to fight fascism, while not getting caught up in a war with Germany.  The Americans, the Peshkovs and the Dewars, are less concerned about the unfolding problems in Europe, but have their hands full with politics and social engagements.  In Russia, Vladimir is involved with the Red Army, and trying to protect Russia from Germany.  Soon, Daisy is in London, flirting with Boy and Lloyd.  The Germans are beginning to suspect that the Nazis are rounding people up and killing them, but are not sure what they can do to stop them.  Eventually, all of the children are involved in the war effort, with Erik fighting for Germany, Lloyd fighting in Spain, Boy flying for the British, Vladimir in the Red Army, Woody and Chuck in the US military, and Greg is using his skills for America, even if he doesn't wear a uniform. 

By the end of the story, Carla has two children, Greg has one, Woody has two, Daisy has two, Lloyd has two, and Vladimir has one.  Lloyd, Carla, and Maud are all in Berlin on the Russian side, but no one has mentioned a wall.  And so the stage is set for Follett's next book, Edge of Eternity, which is due out on September 16, 2014.

One thing that I'd like to note is that Winter is a World War II story, and not a Holocaust story. Obviously, Follett did his research, and I think that his goal was to present the story of the concentration camps from the perspective of the people who lived outside of them during the period.  In Winter, the Germans know that Jews are sometimes rounded up, that gays are targeted, and that the disabled and the elderly seem to disappear.  But some of the Jews come back, and in the story as in real life, the Jewish hospital remains open in Berlin, with Jewish doctors and nurses treating Jewish patients, right up until the Russians invade the city.   After the war ends, the Americans mention camps being found, and the Germans claim that the Russians are re-opening the camps.  The words "concentration camp" are never used, that I can recall.  Additionally, there is no mention of the siege of Leningrad, even though there are Russian characters.  If you are interested in Holocaust stories, you should read Night by Elie Wiesel, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, or Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.  For a great story about the Siege of Leningrad, try Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah.

This book is the first that I have finished for the I Love Library Books Challenge, and for the 2014 Audiobook Challenge.  Winter of the World was read by John Lee, who did a great job handling all of the accents, just as he did in Fall.

Next up on CD:  City of Thieves by David Benioff.  I must not have had enough of WWII.  This is another Siege of Leningrad story.

Still Reading:  The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Best Friend

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is a story told from the perspective of an imaginary friend, Budo.  Budo's human friend is Max.  Max is an 8 year old boy who has autism.  Budo believes that he will only exist for as long as Max believes in him.  His life depends on Max's belief, but according to Budo, this does not make him any less real.  As he explains, an astronaunt who is tethered to a spaceship is not unreal just because he will die without the spaceship.

Max faces lots of challeges that children with autism often face, such as having a difficult time speaking with others, and being bullied.  Budo helps Max in those circumstances, which may account for Budo's unusually long life.  About half way through the story, Max and Budo begin their battle with a real life bad guy, and it is through this episode that Max shows his hidden strengths.

Budo has real insight into what makes a great teacher.  Mrs. Gosk is an amazing teacher because she loves the kids in her class, even the difficult ones, like Max.  She finds ways to keep the kids engaged, while not letting them get away with misbehavior.  Budo says that you can tell that Mrs. Gosk is a great teacher, because she is being a teacher, not acting like one.  He explains that teachers who don't really love their kids are play acting at teaching, and just doing a job to get through the day.  For an imaginary friend, he is pretty observant.

Memoirs is a very fast read.  Budo tells his story in a simple and straight forward voice, but he often repeats himself.  I think that this was intentional, given that Budo is only allowed to be as smart as a young child imagined him to be, but it did get a little old. 

I liked the idea of a society of imaginary friends who are able to interact with one another, and of imaginary friends appearing when people need them.  Budo clearly loves and understands Max.  In the end, Budo realizes that what Max's mom is always saying is really true - the right thing to do is usually the hardest thing.  But most of the time it's worth it. 

Memoirs was my first book for the 2014 Rewind Challenge.  It is also The Typical Book Group's book for this month, so I will have more to say about it after we meet in a couple of weeks.

Next Up:  The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

Still (STILL) Listening To:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Life Changing Summer Camp

While reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer I found myself constantly torn between wanting it to go on forever, and wanting to know what would happen next.  The adjective that is coming to mind is "lovely", but that sounds so unlike me.  Really though, The Interestings is a lovely, lovely book. 

It all started when my daughter's former art teacher suggested that she should go to a sleep away art camp.  I had never even considered that my daughter was qualified to attend an art camp, or that there was one for her, for that matter.  I told her teacher that I was so glad that he had recommended this, and that it could be life changing for her.  I wrote the deposit check, put a stamp on the envelope, and picked up a new book to start reading.  That book was The Interestings.

I went into The Interestings knowing that it was about a group of people who met when they were young and had high expectations, with the reader watching them grow up, and seeing the expectations adjust as plans change and sometimes fail.  I had assumed that it was going to be similar to The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, where the people all meet in college.  Instead, the characters met at a life changing sleep away art camp.  And I was hooked.

Would my daughter's art camp be as important to her as Spirit-in-the-Woods was to these characters?  Would my daughter be more like the charmed and perfect Ash, or like the awkward and lovable but envious Jules?  Could she possibly be like Ethan, the true artistic genius who turns his creativity into a commercial success story?  And then later, please don't let her be like Ethan.  You'll see why.

In The Interestings, Ethan, Jules, Ash and her brother, Goodman, return to Spirit-in-the-Woods, the Utopian camp, each summer.  Their friends also include Jonah, who is the son of a famous folk singer, and Cathy, the talented dancer whose body lets her down.  These kids are driven, and they believe that they are special.  As they graduate from high school and outgrow art camp, they stay in touch as they try to find success in their fields.  Most of the story is set in New York City, where they all live after college.  We first meet the characters in the 1970s, then we progress through New York's aids infected 1980's, the dot com 1990s, and of course, 2001.  The story finally ends when the characters are in their 50s, and some of them are just hitting their stride.

There are some great quotes in this book, beginning with the author's dedication, "For my parents, who sent me there."   Maybe my daughter's art camp will inspire her to write a similar dedication to me someday . . . Note to self:  try to resist setting unrealistic expectations for summer camp.

In fact, although the book is primarily about this group of self obsessed friends, my favorite quotes all involve the family relationships.  The first is Ethan's haiku summary of the book that Ash thinks explains her life, "Drama of the Gifted Child":

"My parents loved me
narcissistically, alas
and now I am sad"

The next is Jules thinking about the relationship between Ash and Goodman:

"The love between a brother and a sister just over a year apart in age held fast.  It wasn't twinship, and it wasn't romance, but it was more like a passionate loyalty to a dying brand."  My kids are only 14 months apart, but they have not yet found that passionate loyalty.  Hopefully it will come with age.

Another great quote is Ash responding to a worried mom, who is concerned that her daughter won't find work as a director, and should try something safer:

". . .if she does really, really want it, and if she seems to have a talent for it, then I think you should tell her 'That's wonderful.'  Because the truth is, the world will probably whittle your daughter down.  But a mother never should."  I cried a little at that one.

Finally, Jules gives Ethan great advice about how to relate to his son who has autism:  "Love your son . . .Love him and love him."

The Interestings also fits into my "secret formula".  There are several books, like The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl that follow a formula that I seem to fall for.  The formula involves a person going to a new school, and recognizing a coed clique that she wants to join.  Once the clique finally accepts the newcomer, she realizes that the group has a secret that she would be better off not knowing.  Usually a teacher is also involved.  The Interestings doesn't fit the formula perfectly, but it comes pretty close.  In The Interestings, Jules doesn't seem to realize that the clique exists until Ash invites her to join.  The secret comes later, and instead of being a secret from outsiders, this secret exists within the clique itself.  A counselor, instead of a teacher, is in on the plan from the start. 

There was so much that I loved about this book.  Each time that I thought that it was predictable and was falling into cliches, Wolitzer threw in a perfect twist to keep the story interesting.  There are so many more topics that I could talk about, like Jules' envy, Ethan's relationship issues, Goodman's arrogance, and Dennis' just plain goodness.  These are all characters who you should really get to know.  I'm adding this one to my growing list of FavoritesThe Interestings was a NYT Notable for 2013.

Next Up:  Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks.  This is the next Typical Book Group pick.

Still Listening to:  Winter of the World by Ken Follett.  I've just reached the half way mark on this one, but the second half should go faster, now that the holidays are over and I'm back to my daily driving routines.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

In With the New!

Welcome to 2014!  A blog hop starts today, where book bloggers are going to list their 3 favorite audio books that they listened to in 2013.  What's a blog hop?  Well, we are learning together here.  Apparently, a few bloggers host the "hop" and other bloggers sign up to participate.  The readers then get linked to other bloggers who they probably have never heard of by clicking to the hop, and then choosing some blogs to check out.  Lots of the blogs will also be offering prizes, so give it a try, and sign up to win! 

The blogs participating in the Hop are all listed at the bottom of this post.  Just click away, and check out a few.

So, what are my three favorite audio books of 2013?  (You can click on the links below to get to my full reviews)  The first one is an easy pick:

1.  The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.  I loved the story, and the reader, Jeff Woodman, was amazing. This is one of my favorite books of all time.

Next, I have to reluctantly give props to Junot Diaz, for his book:

2.  This is How You Lose Her by Diaz.  I am always intrigued by a book that is read by the author.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  I really think that I liked TIHYLH more because Diaz read it, than if I would have read it myself.  The main character, Yunior, who is seemingly based on Diaz, is a total pig, who would be a nightmare to date.  But when Diaz does the reading, the listener almost feels empathy for Yunior, when he just can't help cheating one more time.

The third was a tough pick, but in the end I had to go with this one:

3.  Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  This audiobook is 25 discs, or 30 hours, long, but don't despair!  John Lee is such a great reader that you'll wish for more.  In fact, I'm listening to the next book in the series, Winter of the World, right now, so Lee is still reading to me. 

If you just can't get enough, by clicking this link, you can get to the reviews of all of my favorite audiobooks.

Have fun on the Hop, and check back soon for my review of The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  Fair warning, not everyone on the Hop reviews best sellers or contemporary literature.  Feel free to judge a blog by its name, and brace yourself for books with shirtless men on the cover if you click on a blog with "nympho" in its name. 

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