Monday, August 29, 2016

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife tells the true story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo during the German occupation of Poland.  They were Christians and active members of the Polish Underground.  Many Jews hid in their home and in unused animal cages as they passed through to safer places. Hitler has a fascination with exotic animals and many had been taken to Berlin for study.  Birds and the remaining animals became targets for hunting practice as entertainment for German soldiers.  Hiding their guests required stamina as well as creativity.

Having recently returned from a tour of Normandy, France, World War II history is on my mind.  The horrors of it should never be forgotten.  The heroes of war should never be forgotten either.  The Zookeeper's Wife sheds light on the struggle of war from the viewpoint of a young mother, a Christian and a family trapped in the middle.  The battle is filled with fear and raw emotion.

The story itself is a fascinating one.  The author's flowery and overblown writing I can do without.  I'm glad that Ms. Ackerman took the time to meticulously research the lives of Jan and Antonia.  But she added her own unnecessary over polished words to sugar coat what can never be something other than a very dark and barbaric slice of history.  I would have enjoyed reading this book much more if she had just stuck to telling the amazing story she had at hand.  

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

Milo Andret is a boy who grows up near Cheboygan, Michigan.  His parents raise him in a solitary and unemotional home.  He's a mathematical genius who is content to spend time alone in the woods exercising his passion for numbers and formulas in his mind.

The story leads us through Milo's life, first as a college student at Berkley to a professorship at Princeton.  His goal is to solve the world's greatest math problem to which he throws in every ounce of his being.  Milo ultimately wins the prestigious Fields award, the math equivalent of a Nobel prize but his love of women and booze quickly arrest his ability to advance further in the world of advanced mathematics.

The second half of A Doubter's Almanac is written from the point of view of Milo's son, Hans, who has inherited both Milo's good and bad qualities.  His struggles with life are the same as Milo's only updated for a new generation.  We come to understand Milo through his son's eyes.

I've read several books lately that deal with alcoholism.  That aspect of any story is always painful for me since I have walked down that road myself.  I see in the character's actions, where I may have ended up if I hadn't dealt with my problem.  And that can be scary, to think of what might have been. I initially chose to read this book after I saw Ethan Canin on the PBS show, Well Read. He spoke of writing about life.  Even though A Doubter's Almanac is long and I didn't know anything about solving complex math theories,  I couldn't stop reading it.  And that is the story of life.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland

A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland

When traveling I enjoy stopping into a local bookstore and looking around.  I found A Mad and Wonderful Thing in the Irish fiction section while shopping in a mall in Derry, Northern Ireland.   Captivated by the title first and the topic of "The Troubles" second,  I bought it even knowing that a book would be a rather heavy souvenir to cart home.

The story grabbed me on the first page.  The prose is beautiful, emotional and scenic, all things critical to tell the story of love and war.  You might say that Johnny Donnelly is a mixed up boy on the verge of manhood.  On the other hand, you might say he's got it all together and his life choices are smooth and calculated.  And then enters Cora Flannery, a beautiful girl wearing red boots with green laces, who steals his heart.

I didn't know much about the conflict in Ireland so visiting the country taught me a lot.  I learned about potatoes, clogging and gingers, as the redheads are called.  Politics however, as we well know here in the States, shine a whole different light on the inner workings of a society. War forces people to do things and think in a way that is often difficult to understand.  I wished for Johnny to rise above the fray but in the end was left unsatisfied.  I have to accept that because the strategy of war is something I will never personally be able to understand.

A Mad and Wonderful Thing was exactly that, mad and wonderful. I loved Johnny Donnelly and Cora Flannery but I hated the life they were forced to live in the midst of war.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel rides the train each day into London to her non existent job.  She lost it long ago but admits that fact to no one.  She watches out the window of the train as it passes her old neighborhood and the home she once shared with her ex-husband.  He still lives there with his new wife and new baby daughter.  Rachel pines for the life she once had with Tom while she tries to peer behind the blinds in the instant the train passes each day.

When a woman from the neighborhood goes missing, Rachel's vivid imagination kicks in.  I need to mention that Rachel is an alcoholic.  Her life revolves around a careful manipulation of events she can't recall.  She has a habit of doing her best thinking while drinking a wine on the train.

The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  But beware, the story is intense from start to finish.  The reader never gets a chance to even take a breath, relax, gather some thoughts.  The tension makes for a really good, fast paced novel, but I was exhausted half way though.  I couldn't stop.

Every twist and turn lead to a new and unexpected surprise.  I had no idea what was coming in the end.  The Girl on the Train is exactly the kind of emotional train ride I love to take.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

We meet Lucy Takeda and her daughter, Patty when a police officer arrives on their doorstep to question Lucy about a murder of a local man.  On the eve of Patty's wedding, Lucy is forced to reveal the story of her time in a Japanese internment camp as a teenager.

Lucy's parents seem to have it all.  Her father owns a business, her mother is a stunning beauty, they live in a nice house in Los Angeles.  Soon after her father dies, Pearl Harbor happens.  Everyone of Japanese decent is forced into camps.  Lucy's life turns from happy and comfortable into a game of survival.

Garden of Stones paints a very dark yet realistic picture of life in these camps.  Lucy was forced to grow up in a hurry.  She begins to share her life story with Patty but still feels she has to hold some things back to protect Patty.  But Patty is desperate to find the truth in order to get her mother released from police custody.

I loved the historical aspects of this book but struggled with the holes in the story.  For me the Garden of Stones had a small and inconsequential role to the story yet it was chosen for the title. The reader is led down a very specific path about Patty's birth only to have that yanked out from under them.  I'm all for twists and turns to make a story interesting, but these ended up being unrealistic.  Needless to say I was disappointed in the outcome.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff It's World War II in Leningrad, Russia.  17 year old Lev elected to stay behind in the city when h...