Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck (fiction)

Right off, let me say I enjoyed this book.  I think the title is unfortunate, though, as it has a whiff of chick lit.  It is so much more than that.  The story is haunting and has a different approach to the aftermath of war.  Being World War II Germany, there is guilt, depravation, and survival. Besides, it is an interesting plot with secrets and their consequences.

The story opens in 1938, the threshold of the war, when Hitler is wildly and widely popular, seen as one who will make Germany great again.  Marianne and Albrecht von Lingenfel are giving a party, which turns out to be a cover for Albrecht and a group of like-minded men who are plotting in a back room to assassinate Hitler.  Among the men is Martin “Connie” Fledermann a childhood friend of Maryianne (one whom she is most likely in love with).  Connie asks Marianne to be sure to take care of the the wives and children of the plotters should things go wrong, as indeed they did.  The plot failed and the men were put to death.  (This part of the book is based on a true incident).

The main part of the story takes place after the war in 1945, when Marianne, still living in the largely boarded up and abandoned castle, begins a search and rescue mission for the missing wives.  She finds Connie’s wife, Benita and then her son who had been placed in an orphanage.  Benita had been living in Berlin and badly used by the invading Russians.  Marianne brings them, badly shocked, back to Bavaria where they attempt to begin a life with her.  Around the same time, the Americans who were trying to repatriate large groups of displaced German prisoners asked Marianne to take in Ania and her two sons, who had barely survived a German prisoner-of-war camp.  Post war times were rough for the survivors and Marianne, with her strong personality, kept everyone going.  They eked out subsistence through bartering and gardening.  Marianne was rigid and strong and ran a tight ship.  Benita was beautiful, apolitical, and soft-hearted without survival skills.  Ania was resourceful and practical who as a youth had been under the spell of Hitler’s propaganda.  The secrets and trauma each character suffered are revealed as the book develops and serve to move the plot along.

The book is more than just a story of the survival of three women and their children.  It is a story of how ordinary Germans handled the war and its aftermath of guilt and confusion.  Shattuck’s characters illustrate individual responses to the horror of Hitler’s Germany.  The writing is excellent and the reader becomes caught up in the story of these women and their children who mature and move on to their own futures.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its fine writing, interesting characters, and different look at the aftermath of war.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

KANE AND ABEL by Jeffrey Archer (fiction)

Seeing that it is high summer, I thought to read a beach book with plenty of action and not much concentration involved.  Archer first published this book in 1979 and after many many printings, he revised his novel for the 30th anniversary of the book in 2009.  This book sold more copies around the world than Gone With the Wind.  It is in its 100th printing and it is estimated that 100 million people have read it.  With that said, how could I resist!

This is the story of two men who only meet once in their lives, but that meeting changes the direction their lives take.  They were born a world apart and in vastly different circumstances on the same day.
William Lowell Kane, the son of a Boston Brahmin banker, Kane was destined for success.  Well educated and brilliant at money making, when his father died at an early age, he was a natural successor to a life in banking.  Abel Rosnovski was born under mysterious circumstances in Poland.  Early in life he was adopted by a wealthy Baron.  Though named his heir, he was imprisoned by the invading Germans in World War I and after a series of adventures escaped to America.

While they never meet, the lives of these two brilliant men of business cross again and again through the years.  Abel nurses a grudge again Kane until the final chapters of the book.  It began when Kane refused a loan to a friend of Abel.  Abel blames Kane for his friend’s suicide after he loses all in the 1929 Market crash.

The novel is dense with action; short chapters, with cliff hangers at the end of each, encourage the reader to read on.  I recognize that the book has given millions of readers pleasure, however, I am not one.  I found it to read like a television serial which one keeps on watching with all its contrivances because you want to know how it will end.  It is an easy read.  The characters are stereotypes with little depth.  The reader can predict how they will react.  However, if you are looking for a quick read with plenty of plot, you could do worse. Definitely a good choice for the beach on a lazy summer day.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves (fiction)

This is the first Ann Cleeves mystery I have read.  It is number seven in the Shetland Islands series.  It might make more sense to read these books in order, but not at all necessary.  I had watched the television series “Shetland,” but not this particular story, so I was able to enjoy the book, not knowing the ending.  One thing that surprised me was the description of Jimmy Perez, the chief officer of the small police force in Ravenswick.  Characters more than once remark on Perez’s dark good looks, while the t.v. Perez is fair and doesn’t reflect the Spanish ancestry that Cleeves gave him.

The story is a suspenseful and well-plotted, and the bleak setting of the isolated islands off the northeast coast of England are perfectly described.  While islands are often portrayed as places where it is impossible to keep a secret, one of the book’s characters remarks that secrets are necessary to preserve one’s sanity.

As the story opens, Perez is attending the burial of Mangus Tait, a character who has appeared in other stories.  It is a misty, overcast day suitable for a funeral.  Suddenly disaster strikes as a massive landslide descends on the mourners.  Graves are overturned and slide down to the road below, cutting off the island’s towns from the airport and insuring that businesses and schools will be closed.  After the immediate rescue efforts, it is discovered that a small croft home had been destroyed and the body of an attractive dark-haired woman was found near the ruins.  Closer inspection showed that she had been strangled.  What’s more, she is a stranger to the island and tracking her identity becomes part of the mystery which eventually leads to her murderer.

To help solve the mystery, Chief Inspector Willow Reeves from the mainland joins Jimmy.  It would seem that these two have some history and are drawn together by what is more than mutual admiration.  One of Cleeves’ strengths is that her characters are real and not stereotypes, and it is fun to see these two juggle professionalism with growing attraction. Perez is not the usual brooding and damaged mystery detective, though he must work through the loss of his wife who died in one of the previous books.  He is a more normal character trying to balance being a dad with working long hours.

Mystery series are wildly popular and there are a number of good ones out there.  I would recommend Ann Cleeves for her writing and intelligently thought out novels.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THE ONE-CENT MAGENTA by James Barron (non-fic)

Inside the Quest to Own the Most Valuable Stamp in the World

You certainly don’t have to be a stamp collector to enjoy this book.  James Barron relates a fascinating account of the most valuable stamp in the world, how it came to be so, and along the way, a bit of the history of British Guiana, now independent and known as Guyana.

Guiana, a small country along the north coast of South America, was always an area of interest from its earliest founding.  Many, including Walter Raleigh, hoped it would contain the riches of El Dorado.  At one time Portugal and Spain claimed the area.  The British fought for it, and at several times in history, it was ruled by the Dutch.  Eventually the French captured it, and after the Napoleonic Wars, Britain again ruled.  By the middle of the 19th century, Georgetown, the capitol was thriving and an efficient postal service was in place.  We don’t often spend time thinking about stamps, but before stamps, people paid cash on delivery for their mail.  Imagine receiving a trove of love letters, but having to pay for the postage yourself, or even worse, as the recipient of bills or hate mail, paying the cost of postage.

One time in 1856, a shipment of stamps from England to the Georgetown post office didn’t arrive when expected, and the postmaster requisitioned a printing of temporary stamps be made by a local newspaper’s printing press.  Thus came into being the now famous One Cent Magenta.  The stamp was nothing special, it pictured a ship on a reddish background, and no one bothered saving it.  What makes this stamp so special, the Mona Lisa of stamps, is that it is the only one that has survived. Nondescript with its two clipped corners, it has remained the obsession of every serious and wealthy stamp collector since the mid-19th century.  In 1873, a 12 year old boy, found the stamp on an old letter from an uncle.  Within five years, it was being fought over by collectors, famous and unknown. This was the heyday of philately, stamp collecting.  Every young boy, a some girls, spent house cutting stamps from letters and carefully pasting them in albums.  Until baseball cards took over, stamp collecting remained on of the most popular of hobbies.  I can remember my father, working with tweezers and small tabs, positioning stamps and placing them in the large album he had.  Inside were pictures of stamps from all over the world, and the ideal was to own a copy of each stamp.

The first owner of the Magenta was a French aristocrat, followed by a New York textile manufacturer.  It was passed on to his wife at his death and she eventually sold it to a group of investors from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  By 1970, its worth was $286,000.  It was eventually bought by John E. duPont, who was made famous when charged with the murder of Dave Schulz.  The movie, Foxfire, was made in 2014, about him, and starring Steve Carell.  No mention was made in the movie about his fixation with stamps.

The Magenta continues to fascinate;  it has travelled all over the world to museums and special exhibits.  It was sold again in 2014 by Southey’s for 9.5 million dollars.  Its current owner is Stuart Weitzman, a familiar name to lovers of stylish shoes.

Philately may have declined in popularity, but people love unattainable, one of a kind objects.  Because of this the stamp continues to beguile and fascinate.  The story of its history is equally captivating.  This book will appeal to all who love an engrossing story of a world-wide obsession.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

SHATTERED by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes (NF)


If you can bear to think about politics in these days of overkill, the authors’ analysis of why Hillary Clinton lost what was supposed to be a sure thing, is worth a read.

There are no end of theories as to why Hillary lost the election, including the one she holds herself, that she was done in by Russian hacking and meddling with voters, along with FBI director, James Comey’s email revelations just before the election.

I feel the authors have presented an unbiased account of events leading up to her defeat.  They interviewed over 100 sources, many within Hillary’s organization, who were quite candid, as they had a promise that nothing would be written before the election.  Many insiders in hindsight feel that she set herself up for defeat for a myriad of reasons, chief among them that Hillary did not take a lesson from her defeat in the 2008 election in which she lost to Barak Obama.  Somehow Hillary has always had problems connecting with voters; she has been unable to find a way to convince people of her sincerity.  Her inability to communicate what she stands for has been responsible for the widely conflicted views of who she really is. Hillary, unlike Bill Clinton, was never able to really connect with a grass-roots base of voters.

Like just about everything in the national election of 2016, people will be discussing, debating and reading about it for many years to come.  There are so many theories put forth about Hillary’s failure to win what was commonly thought of as a sure bet, even up to the final hours of the campaign.  Perhaps she underestimated Bernie Sanders and his base, or failed to listen to advice from locals in the must-win states.  A lot of money was spent from her very deep coffers, but somehow the emphasis was put on the wrong states.  Robbie Mook, her campaign manager based too much importance on number crunching and data analysis.  And, perhaps the biggest problem of all was her disorganized and conflicted group of advisers and speech writers.  She was receiving different messages from friends, whose advice she put too much faith in, and the seasoned campaigners she hired to run her top heavy organization.  In the end, Hillary spent hours obsessing over issues and details that voters were not interested in.  Or perhaps, America just wasn’t ready for a female president.

All these theories and more are laid out in this well-written book. I recommend it to readers and discussion groups who are interested in dissecting a complicated and incredibly interesting part of what is now history.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

THE RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles (fiction)

Having loved Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow,” I had to read his first book.  It did not disappoint.  I love this book equally.  Though it is a very different book, the same fine and elegant writing style applies to both.  I fall into Towles books and before I know it, I have spent over an hour in the pure pleasure of not only a good story with interesting characters, and I find I don’t want to leave the world that he has created for these characters.
If “The Great Gatsby evokes all the glamour and wildness of the post-war twenties, “The Rules of Civility” equally epitomizes post-depression, pre-war Manhattan, the city of bright lights and dark jazz clubs.  It is a time when $3.00 can take you out for a night on the town.

The story opens in 1966, where we meet our narrator Katey Kontent, enjoying an art show at MOMA with her husband.  They are viewing a series of photos of subway riders by Walker Evans, when she spots two photographs of the same man.  In one he is dressed to the nines, in the other he is looking shabby, but calm and at peace.  This is the catalyst which shakes Katey’s memory and takes the reader to what was the most important year of her life.

With Katey we return to New Year’s Eve 1937.  Katey and her roommate, Eve are celebrating the turn of the year in a popular Greenwich Village jazz club where they meet the attractive Tinker Gray.  This is the beginning of an unforgettable affair where these three characters are forever entwined.  This is a year where Katey grows into a strong woman, one where her career becomes settled, and an unfortunate accident changes the lives of all three characters.  Its outcome leads each on a different path in life.

Katey, who grew up in Brooklyn, is the daughter of a Russian immigrant. Eve is fleeing from a boring future in the mid-west.  Tinker is a graduate of Yale and an investment manager.  He is flush with money and living in the stylish Beresford on Central Park West.  When Eve and Tinker drift out of Katey’s life, (but not for long as the novel takes place over the course of one year), Katey is taken up by the smart set, debs working alongside of her at the popular magazine, “Gotham,” where she is an assistant to the demanding editor.  She is soon cavorting in Oyster Bay and the Adirondacks with the young rich, somehow preserving herself from their fast life style.  Along the way she meets a decent fellow, Wallace Vanderwhile (who is one of the early casualties of WWII).  Later in the book, Katey tells us, “It is one of life’s little ironies, of the four with whom I spent 1938, it was Wallace who maintained the greatest influence on my daily life.”  I won’t tell you why, it would be a spoiler.

The title of the book is taken from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, which can be found in the addendum.  Tinker carried this book with him and it is important in understanding his character and the choices he makes.  Of all the characters, he and Katey are soul mates and forever tied by love.

Towels is a beautiful writer, who sets a mood which carries a reader through to the last page.  The two books of his I have read are gems to keep on my bookshelf.  I highly recommend this book to all readers and book groups.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


"Joan of Arc: a Life Transfigured" is the story of the rise and fall of La Pucelle, the virgin warrior who claimed she was sent by God to save France.  Joan was born in 1412 and was only 17 years old, an age when most girls of her time were either married, betrothed or dreaming of it, when her “voices" told her to rescue Charles the Dauphin and lead him to Reims to be throned as France’s lawful king.  She was only 19 years old when she was burned at the stake on trumped up charges because she terrified the Burgundians and British, who feared her powers of inspiration over the rag-tag french army.
For two years in the late 1420s Joan, with her sharp eyes and strong will, was able to persuade the cream of French nobility to believe in her vision of expelling the English from French soil and autonomy for France.  Unfortunately for Joan, she had enemies among the Dauphin’s advisers, the clergy and the Burgundians who were allied with the British in these middling years of the 100 Years War. The British had been occupying France for 75 years.  It is only fair to say, from the British standpoint, they had a lawful right through birth to the area of France they occupied.  By Joan’s time, it was unclear who had a right to any of the fought over territory.
After successfully convincing a number of worthies as well as the Dauphin (though cautiously and half-hearted) to grant her funding for arms and men, Joan set out to drive the English from Orleans. By this time she had transformed herself from a simple village girl to a woman who donned fancy armor, cut her hair to a bob, and rode and spirited horse with confidence and skill.  Further, she seemed with little effort to be able to carry and use a heavy medieval lance. After a fierce battle, she shocked the superior British army with a victory achieved almost by force of will.  From there she and her army moved on to Jargeau, again with success.  Marching on to Reims with Charles, she sees him crowned in the grand cathedral amid pomp and ceremony.  Alas, the perfidious Charles under the influence of his closest advisor signed a four month truce with the Burgundians.

Unaware of this, Joan pushes on to other occupied cities.  By now, Joan is addicted to battle, for what is her purpose unless it is to fight for the ideals she believes in.  Unfortunately in 1430, Joan is captured at Compiegne along with her brother and squire.  Joan is moved from place to place until she arrives in Rouen where a public trial is to be held.  Luckily for historians, there is ample documentation of this travesty of justice, even held up to medieval standards.  The villain here is Bishop Cauchon who does his best to trap Joan into perjuring herself without success.  Joan seems to have a brilliant mind fully able to take on the court officials as well as the Church.  What finally undoes her is her deteriorating health caused by torture and poor diet. In a weak moment Joan agrees to certain conditions including putting on a dress.  She quickly returns to her male attire and is accused of being a lapsed heretic.  This is the final charge which leads to her burning at the stake.

Harrison has done a prodigious amount of research to give an accurate picture of Joan and life in medieval France.  There are excellent maps to help place battles and Joan’s travels through the countryside.  The author includes many references to artistic renderings of the myth of Joan by mentioning plays, movies, and quotes from famous authors such as Voltaire, Shaw and Twain.  I could have done without the movie and fiction accounts, though they only occupy a small part of the book.  Harrison is at her best explaining battles, Joan’s motivation, and village life. She gives an impressive account of Joan’s trial and sentencing.  There have been many many books on Joan in Europe and the Americas.  I found Harrison’s to be readable and interesting.  Joan still remains a mystery.  Did she hear voices, and have visits from angels and saints?  Did she make it all up or was she perhaps schizophrenic?  Whatever the answer, she has survived the ages and is an enduring symbol for French courage and bravery.