Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, by Louise Murphy

Note: Okay -- obviously, I'm way behind on posting this, but I did review it on my own blog some time back, and I've been meaning (since October!) to post it here as well. So, here goes...

I'm a little on the fence about this one, largely because I don't quite know how to approach a recommendation. I'm left with the choice between commending the author for a creative and fascinating twist on a traditional story and criticizing the author for what was (for me, at least) the use of distastefully graphic details in certain places.

There is no question that Louise Murphy's idea for this book was excellent: she started with a fairy tale and made it into a feasible story set in Poland at the end of World War II. Two Jewish children, known only as Hansel and Gretel (assumed names to protect their heritage), are more or less abandoned in the forests of Poland because their father and stepmother believe that they will have a better chance of surviving on their own. In Murphy's story, the father is a kind but slightly impractical man, and his wife is bitterly pragmatic but certainly not cruel. She encourages that the children go on their own, not because she hates them, but because she knows that the four of them together stand no chance of getting past the Nazis. In this way, Murphy takes a simplistic idea -- father, angry stepmother, and two children abandoned -- and gives it a realistic twist, while also explaining the various and complex motives that people have for their actions.

Forced to survive alone, the children stumble upon the cottage of a Gypsy woman named Magda who lives on the outskirts of a tiny Polish village as something of an outcast. Magda is considered a witch by the locals, but they also rely on her for her medical knowledge. Her Gypsy background is kept quiet (although everyone knows about it), because the Nazis are quick to deport Gypsies as well as Jews. She decides to take the children in, giving them new papers and a history, and she tells everyone that her niece and nephew have come to visit her. Meanwhile, the children's father and stepmother manage to connect themselves to a group of Russian rebels who are picking off Nazis as they go and waiting for the Russians to push the German soldiers out of Russia and back through Poland.

Back in the village, Magda faces a variety of challenges with the children, not the least of which is the arrival of a German SS officer who has been sent to locate and take back with him all children who appear to have an "Aryan" background. Unfortunately, the little girl Gretel fits this description perfectly (I rather love that Murphy includes this little detail: the Jewish girl is everything that the Germans want in an Aryan child), but fate steps in and provides an escape for Gretel -- quite tragically, it turns out. She goes into the forest alone early one winter morning to enjoy the "wonderland" of snow and ice, and she is set upon and raped by two men.

This is where my criticism of the story comes in. I'll accept that authors use very tragic circumstances for the storylines, and I won't fault Murphy for including this one. What bothers me is that Murphy saw the need to explain the rape in graphic detail. I. Didn't. Need. To. Read. That. I would have been properly horrified and saddened by the aftermath scene of an innocent little girl who is now broken and violated. As far as I'm concerned, that's more than enough to indicate the tragedy that has occurred. But apparently Murphy didn't think so, and I've struggled with her reasons for including this scene. I just don't think it contributed anything to the storyline itself except excessive and unnecessary detail. I have a feeling that Murphy was trying to provide as authentic a description of the cruelties of life for these people as she could. (I'll certainly say that I came away from the book with a new appreciation for what the Polish people -- Jew, Gypsy, and otherwise -- suffered during the Holocaust.) But the entire scene was just too much for me. I wish I could say that I saw it coming and that I could have turned the page and read past it, but unfortunately it creeps up on the reader very quickly. One second Gretel wonders who the men are, and the next second she is being assaulted. Truly horrific. I don't need to read things like this to be aware that they happen and to be appalled by them. Others might think differently, but that's my own perspective on this issue.

I'm sorry to say that this isn't the only moment of unnecessary detail in the story, although this is by far the most graphic. There are a few other places where I felt as though Murphy got carried away with her need to provide a clear image of the Holocaust and lost sight of the main story. At the end of the day, this is a new take on the story of Hansel and Gretel, and Murphy should have stuck closely to that.

I'm going to recommend this book, because I think it's fresh and interesting in its approach, and I think it offers an important look at the end of the Holocaust and the struggles that all of the Polish people faced in surviving. At the same time, be forewarned that there are some distasteful moments of detail in this story. (If you want to avoid the scene noted above, skip the chapter entitled "Ice Storm.")

Year of publication: 2003
Number of pages: 297

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Comstock Lode - by Louis L'amour

I cannot tell you how magnificent I feel being back on this book blog, I have tried to pull my brain out of soccer, school, puddles of potty and baby spit up to give a good review and I hope you enjoyed the journey this book took you on!

I own almost a thousand books, and being a Navy wife I’ve grown accustomed to the packers groaning as they see my bookshelves.

Hardbacks are great because they don’t fall apart as fast as paperbacks but for my favorite books I prefer the feel of softness and lovingly worn pages that a paperback gets, Comstock Lode is one of these.

Louis Lamour was a rigid researcher, he didn’t write anything unless he could back it up historically in some way, in this book he takes an historic western town and gives it life. Each character is put in for the strategic reason of getting to know the time, the place and the people who lived there.

I love books that have a vast cast of people woven in and out of the pages, it takes great imagination and a whole lot of work to write a plot that encompasses an entire continent and dozens of people.

Through these pages we follow the life of Val Trevallion, witnessing the most horrifying moments of his life and seeing him grow into a man able to cope with the hardships of the western frontier. We meet his friends, people like Crockett the mine owner, Jim Ledbetter the packer and Melissa the lonely woman.

We respect Val because he works hard and has the valor to help those who need help and kill those who need killed. For it was men like Val and women like Melissa and Grita that made the West a safe place for families, they were the law before there was structured law, without good people fighting for right and justice the scum of mankind would have thrived off of the pioneers, taking what they wanted and leaving a trail of blood behind.

My favorite side characters is Jacob Teale, he is an excellent example of what kind of men tamed the West, yes he is definitely on the rough side, and he had killed before but never “without a cause” and he did cross the line of the law when it suited him to do so. However he also had a strong sense of honor, and once that honor had been appealed to he had the compulsion to follow through with it, and he does, all the way to the end. As he says when Grita first approaches him; “Ma’am you don’t need to give me nothin’. My old mammy would turn in her grave did she think I was takin’ money for protectin’ a lady.”

I also like how much we get to know the villain Albert Hesketh, we understand him and feel a pity for his hopes, for the dreams that he has killed so many people to fulfill. Yes, we feel sorry for him but do not regret his end. And he dies the way he should, no honor, no glory, just death.

This book is full of the west, the good the bad and yes, the hardworking man who just does what he can to make a home for his family.

I have had the privilege of being to Virginia City, it is very strange to walk the hills that not so long ago were a part of our Wild West.

To view the rocks and sagebrush you would never think that anyone would survive there long enough to live. It took tough men and women to carve out their place in history and leave a legacy behind.

Comstock Lode is a great fiction to read if you want to get a feel for the western people that blazed the trails for the rest of us.

And maybe, just maybe we will feel the western hospitality and help a neighbor once in a while, out of remembrance to the ones who had no one but the stranger next to them on the hill.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy

Once again Rose picked a winner for our group to read. I absolutely loved it! Calon Lan has already gotten around to reviewing it and did a good job. Pop on over and read her review because I don't have too much else to offer.

I would describe Will Cuppy as the Wodehouse Historian. The sense of humor is almost identical. It is entertaining and delightful in every way. Cuppy does deal with mature subject matter but does so in such a way as to make a suggestion, drop a hint, but never outright say what it is he is trying to say. You get the point.

My favorite description in the book is of Aspasia, "companion" to Pericles:

"Aspasia believed in women's rights. That is, she thought women were as good as men, a notion that is always cropping up here and there. The position of women in Athens was not perfect, but it might have been worse. A married lady was permitted to dine with her husband unless there was company, when she was expected to keep to her own quarters. At ordinary meals she sat on a chair and he reclined on a sofa because he was all tired out discussing Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, Freedom and Moderation with his men friends.
Greek wives could not go gadding about the streets, but they could look out the window and have babies. After the age of sixty, they could attend funerals. Yet many of them were dissatisfied with their lot."

I think the thing that most impressed me about Cuppy himself is that he apparently read everything he could get his hands on, on any particular subject or topic, and amassed tons of 3x5" note cards on subjects before writing one word himself. He wanted to make sure he knew his subject matters as best as he possibly could before expounding on it to the world. That is an admirable trait and one I respect, regardless of whether or not I always happened to agree with his historical opinion.

This book is excellent for teaching history in an entertaining way. Whether or not you like reading about history, you will have a hard time NOT having fun with this book. I loved it! Thanks, Rose, for the recommendation!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

"I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty; however accurately one may fill in the surface details of one's mirror reflection, the personality represented rarely comes through as others would see it."

As a retired artist of the imperial war machine, Masuji Ono must now redraw his own self-portrait to come to terms with his new life in post-war Japan. With the great cause of his life discredited, with his years of artwork packed out of sight, his children can only offer the consolation that he wasn't all that significant and certainly doesn't need to commit hari-kiri to atone like many of his peers.

This book fascinated me on several levels. The writing, with multiple depths to the simple surface of family conversations and recollections.The character study, as Ono is unable to see himself truly, and yet unable to conceal who he really is. The historical and cultural setting.

Most of all it moved me to reflect on my life. As my children get old enough for me to see my own judgments of my parents in their eyes, I wonder what they will think of my life in the end. Will it seem wasted to them? Will I spend years chasing down the wrong goal? They will know me too well to accept the shining mental picture I have of myself, yet I still hope that my "labor will not be in vain" and that I will have something to look back on with content.

In the end Ono does have something worthy he brought through the war, though he never thought of it as his important work: the lives of his two daughters, and then of their children, who will be part of restoring his country.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Feint of Art, by Hailey Lind

This summer I’ve indulged myself by trying out several new mystery writers and series. Some stories I have enjoyed, while others were too much of a stretch to be believable, or just badly written. But the popularity of the amateur detective is greatly evident when you stroll through the mystery section of the bookstore, and see series after series involving shopkeepers and writers and store owners and party planners, all of whom suddenly blossom into private investigators, with the typical motivation of helping out a friend combined with personal nosiness. (I reflected briefly on this phenomenon when I reviewed three such novels on Leaf and Frame.) Creating a believable scenerio wherein a (typically) self-employed young professional discovers private-eye talents and uses them convincingly, is difficult, I believe. When in real life can a florist or coffeeshop owner succeed where a police detective can’t? In a market burgeoning with “same formula/new setting” mystery series, creating a fun, unique character who finds a legitimate reason to sleuth around is the author’s first and most challenging imperative. Some of those I have read over the summer succeeded in that goal, while others did not.

In Feint of Art, Hailey Lind did a decent job of giving her detective a convincing cause and motivation for tracking down some missing persons together with missing works of art. As a reformed art forger turned legitimate businesswoman, Annie Kincaid’s background is original and gives her a slight edge in a case involving the “art underworld,” so to speak. Other than that, Annie is a formula character with the prerequisite traits of inquisitiveness, tenacity, money troubles, fashion obstacles, and a suffering love life. (Seriously, all the heroines that I have encountered in this type of mystery novel have these same characteristics.) But Annie’s particular incarnation is enjoyable enough, and the plot’s rising action involving deception, murder, art renovation and flirtation, was interesting and swift enough to keep me turning the pages.

Feint of Art is one of the better examples of the amateur detective subgenre, and it was nice indulging in a bit of candy reading this month. It nowhere reaches the cleverness of Agatha Christie nor the witty depth of Dorothy Sayers; but readers who like modern mystery writers will enjoy this light entertainment.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

I posted this on my own blog a while back but completely forgot to post my review of the book here during July. Very sorry about that.

This book is a delight from beginning to end. The subject matter, the writing style, the local characterizations -- from the first page to the last, I was drawn in and fascinated by life in Provence. Mayle is a gifted writer and has a talent for selecting just the right moment and describing it in perfect detail. As a result, there are gems to be found on every page and a laugh in just about every paragraph.

The premise of the book is the many experiences of the first year that the author (or narrator, depending on how the reader chooses to distinguish the two) and his wife have after moving to Provence. They buy an old French house -- apparently the one in the picture below -- and then set themselves to the task of remodeling it and assimilating into Provençal life. As expected, there are all kinds of new adventures along the way, from getting accumstomed to the local way of measuring time to getting used to the vast changes in weather, from learning the variances of the French language in Provence to braving the many guests who invite themselves down. The house that is supposed to be remodeled within a matter of a month or two doesn't get completed until December, and then only because the author and his wife lure the builders into finishing the job by throwing a cocktail party and inviting them and their wives. (The ploy is quite brilliant actually: no self-respecting workman from Provence would let his wife see that his work is only half-finished.) But the year and the story moves very quickly, and by the time the reader reaches December, it's a little disappointing to know that it will all be over soon.

Although the remodeling of the house is the central element of the plot, Mayle doesn't focus exclusively on the challenges of getting contractors to finish a job in a timely manner, which is just as well since that seems to be a universal and not terribly original problem. While their house is being torn apart and rebuilt, he and his wife take the time to experience the local culture and get to know the part of Provence in which they are living. There is hiking to do, truffles to hunt, (lots of) wine to drink, cafes to enjoy, and even a goat race to watch. The book was originally published in 1989, so I suspect that no matter how "provincial" Provence might have remained, much of what Mayle describes is now obsolete, but it's fun to read about anyway. For myself, I have to admit that I hope the cafe bathrooms have improved and that many of the cafes now take credit cards (which I would assume they do, or at least some of them). But I enjoyed Mayle's take on everything and his willingness to allow Provence to reveal itself to him and to accept Provence as it is and not as he thought it would, or should, be.

To me, the best part of the book has to be Mayle's descriptions of the people encountered along the way. From the trigger-happy neighbor Massot to the industrious tenant Faustin and his wife Henriette to the delightfully philosophical electrician Menicucci, Mayle breathes life into each of these characters and shows the reader how they make up the Provence that he has learned to love. My personal favorite, though, might be Mayle's description of the hapless English friend Bennett who accidentally caught the backseat of his rented convertible on fire (while driving down the autoroute, no less) and then put the fire out by urinating on it. (He did pull over to perform that task.) I laughed for about three days when I read this.

Two thumbs up for A Year in Provence and a big recommendation. Mayle's wit is wonderfully dry and his sense of humor keeps the reader interested. I realize that this one isn't exactly fresh off the printing presses, but the writing style is fresh enough to keep it relevant and enjoyable for some time.

Year of publication: 1989
Number of pages: 207

Cross-posted to Dwell in Possibility.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Cordelia Underwood, by Van Reid

Totally fun. And just a little bewildering.

This book reminded me a lot of Pickwick Papers: a club of bungling bachelors, who ought to be men of the world but instead are hopeless innocents, marauding the countryside. Only it's late 19th century Maine and there are bears and politicians and lady parachutists and Captain Kidd's lost treasure to enliven things. And a sometimes intertwining plot with a young heroine and her peculiar inheritance from her sailor uncle.

There were a lot of characters, and a lot of plot threads, not all of which were tied up neatly. (Really, hardly any of them. But there seem to be quite a few more books in the series, hurrah!) Although I found it confusing at times, mostly it was just part of the effusive fun of the book.