Friday, October 21, 2016

THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE by Thomas Harding (non-fic)


Thomas Harding, a British journalist has written an absorbing account of a house on the shores of Gross Glienicke Lake between Potsdam and Berlin.  If you are fascinated by old houses and wonder who lived there and what dramas took place, then you will love this book as much as I did.  Five families occupied this house through its history, each family with their own particular loves, fears, illnesses, and crisis, yet each family took shelter, pleasure and comfort from the house. The house always possessed something magical which drew people to it, especially the children who lived there.  To them it was a paradise of waiting adventures to be had on both the land and the water.  The author's grandmother said it was her "soul place."

The first owner of the large piece of property the Lake House is built on was Otto Wollank, a gentleman farmer who built a large house and built up a model farm as the 19th century drew to a close.  By the end of World War I, the farm was losing money and Wollank began to sell off parcels of land to wealthy Brandenburg professionals during the 1920s.  The economy was stabilizing and Berlin was again a center of learning, society and nightlife.  The author's great-grandfather and his family now enter the story.  Alfred Alexander, a brilliant physician had just been elected to the Berlin Chamber of Physicians, a high honor which brought him many notable patients; Nobel Prize winners like Albert Einstein, actress like Marlene Dietrich, his services were in high demand.  The Alexanders were drawn to the lake as an escape from the pressures of city living.  The Bauhaus Movement was changing people's minds about architecture and drawing them away from opulent ornate homes to simpler functional designs.  This was just the type of home, Alfred wanted for his retreat.  The Lake House brought years of happiness to the Alexanders through the 1930s until the end of the Weimar Republic.  With the rise of the Third Reich and its suppression of Jews, the family realized it was time to leave. They fled to England, never to return.

Alfred leased the house to Willy Meisel a famous composer and musical arranger and his actress wife.  The Meisles stayed until 1944 when events forced them to leave.  Meisel's creative director, Hans Harmann then moved in with his Jewish wife, an opera singer.  The Lake House was a refuge for them, and they peacefully remained until the end of the war and the partition of Germany.  Choosing not to live under communism, they fled to West Germany.  The house was then taken over by Wolfgang Kuhne and his family.

With the takeover of the Soviets and the partition of Berlin, the lake and area, quickly declined.  The house also was a victim of this decline.  The Berlin Wall separated the two banks of the lake, and those on the Eastern side, no longer had access to the lake or its views.  A barbed-wire fence and the wall separated them from any enjoyment of the shore.  Yet the beauty of the lake was unchanging, hidden by the wall but alway there, waiting for liberation.

Harding first saw the house and lake in 1993 when he was a student. His grandmother, Elsie, who grew up there took all her grandchildren to visit the house.  It is a poignant and bittersweet moment for the Alexander family.

There are some wonderful home movies of the Alexanders available on YouTube showing the house throughout its history, not to be missed if you read the book.

I loved this book and highly recommend it to all readers.  It was a prize winner and best seller in Europe.  It is an excellent choice for all book groups.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

MISSING PRESUMED by Susie Steiner (fic)

Edith Hind is the missing person of the title. She is considered high-risk because she comes from a wealthy socially prominent family London family.  Her father is physician to the Royal Family. It is a priority of the powers that be, that this case is solved quickly.  Edith is a post-grad Cambridge University student who has all the attributes for a successful future.  She is gorgeous, bright and seemingly has an equally perfect boyfriend.  On the night she went missing, her flat was left unlocked and open. Two wine glasses and blood were found in the kitchen.  Nothing appeared to be missing, her purse and coat were left behind, and other possessions were left undisturbed.

In contrast to Edith is Manon Bradshaw, the Cambridgeshire detective assigned to the case. Manon at 39 is single, morose and angry. (Why are all detectives in crime books flawed?)  Luckily for the reader, Manon is more interesting than any other character in the book.  I became as much engrossed in her story as in that of the spoiled missing Edith.  Manon meets men online, has one-night stands and trouble sleeping.  Lonely, she is unable to make meaningful connections with colleagues or any of the men she dates.  Then in what appears to be an unrelated case, the body of a young man, a murder victim, is washed up along the river, Cam.  During the investigation Manon meets the appealing, but prickly, young brother of the dead man.  This young boy tugs at her dormant heart strings, and he eventually leads Manon to reconnect with her estranged sister.

As the two cases converge, Edith's secrets are gradually revealed. First the reader must work his/her way through a number of red herrings and blind alleys.  Steiner is an excellent writer.  Her characters are real and sympathetic. I found the book more satisfying than some of the current crop of best sellers with "Girl" in their title.  While I found Manon's story interesting,  the final resolution and ending of the book disappointed. It was a tad too tidy.  Nevertheless I recommend it as another satisfying British mystery novel.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

SPQR by Mary Beard (non-fic)

This is the perfect book to read after Robert Harris's Cicero series.  Reading Beard's non-fiction account of the founding and early years of Roman democracy through the demise of the Empire adds another layer to the fine research Harris did for his novel of the end of Rome's democratic period.  Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge, has written a readable and interesting account of what propelled a small city on the Tiber to become a world power running the largest Empire in the ancient world.  No surprise, perhaps, we find the Roman rulers grappling with the same problems as democracies in today's world: citizenship, political intrigue, class disparity, trade balance, and foreign wars and diplomacy. SPQR (Senatus Populus Que Romanus) answers the question what was the role of the Senate and citizens of Rome in the city and in the Empire.

It is debatable when Rome was actually founded; it was sometime around the 8th century, bce.  What we think of as the glory days of Rome, began in the 4th and 3rd centuries, bce. This was the time of the great men who entered the world stage, statesmen and generals. By the 2nd century bce, 80,000 new slaves a year were being bought and sold on the streets of the city. The figures seem horrifying, but it was not unusual to free slaves after a period of service, and they in turn were granted citizenship and many became successful entrepreneurs and founders of dynasties.  Gradually Rome became a mixed society, and by 212, the Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all conquered nations.  This solved the problem of a ready supply of soldiers, and the taxation required to rule the Roman world.  Greek became the common tongue, much as English is today.  The Empire was diverse but not tolerant.  Almost everybody came from somewhere else, but each was expected to fit in to the culture of Rome. This model eventually was the undoing of the Roman Empire.  The role of women was flexible as society evolved. They had more rights after the time of Caesar, but were not liberated in the modern sense.  The Roman model assured that the Empire should be administered rather than conquered.

Between 146 bce and the death of Caesar in 44 ce, was the high point of Roman literature, art and culture.  Rome as a democracy did not last long.  The assassination of Cicero marked the end of the Roman Republic and the once respected Senate became little more than a debating society.  After Caesar, his great-nephew, Octavian (Caesar Augustus) defeated all rivals and ruled for 50 years.  His was the most long-lived term. There were 14 Emperors until the fall of Rome and their qualities didn't much matter, the Empire survived despite their decadence and profligate life style. Most were murdered, yet the Empire survived.

Not many writings survived to enlighten us about the life of the average Roman citizen.  Cicero's prolific letters, Livy's writing and that Pliny the Younger give us some idea, but they were from the aristocracy.  Rather, the life of the common man is told in monuments and gravestones found all over Italy.  They survive to enlighten us about families and tell us what people took pride in.  Mary Beard did a wonderful series of programs called, "Meet the Romans" which can be found on UTube.  These are informative companions to this book, and give an excellent picture of life in Imperial Rome.

I highly recommend this book to all who wish to know more about life and politics in the ancient world and what has survived as a model for the world we live in today.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

FIRESTARTER by Stephen King (fic)

Early Stephen King novels are having a bit of a revival these days.  The Guardian is currently doing a series reading the novels, and the current New York Review has a fine article on appreciating his work.  All this happened just in time, as I am recovering from a mishap that resulted in a fractured kneecap.  With plenty of time on my hands, I thought it would be good to try something different than my usual taste.  My son sent me "Firestarter," assuring me I would enjoy it.  Enjoy it I did.  It was a good choice for a housebound reader.  This is one of King's early books published in 1980, and it has had a resurgence in popularity, rated as one of the top 10 favorites among King fans.  An old movie was also made of it.  Pretty awful by all accounts.  It starred Drew Barrymore when she was a youngster.

The book is typical of the early King writing, involving a chase with threatening pursuers and characters with otherworldly powers. It begins with a couple of young college students agreeing to take part in a drug experiment conducted by an organization known as "the Shop." (read CIA) Volunteers, Andy McGee and his girlfriend Vickey, whom he later married, were left with permanent damage including unwelcome psychic powers that they gradually learned to control. Andy was sometimes able to get into people's minds and direct them to do his bidding.  Being a moral person, he rarely used his power and only in extreme circumstances.  It always left Andy ill and depleted, suffering from intense migraines. Other victims of the experiment mysteriously came to bad ends.  Somehow Andy and Vickey were able to escape detection for a number of years.  Then they had a child, Charlie McGee, who is the main character at the center of the book.  Charlie, it turns out, was born with a frightening ability known as pyrokinesis.  As she grows, her gift becomes more destructive and dangerous.  Because she is aware of the terrible consequences which are difficult for her to control, she refuses to use this ability.

Becoming aware of Charlie's power, the Shop, sends a hit-man named John Rainbird to kidnap her so they can study her and make use of her strange "gift."  Railbird becomes obsessed with Charlie in a creepy way adding to the suspense.   Once on the road, Charlie and her father manage to elude their pursuers as the action builds in suspense.  They are saved early on by an New York farmer named Manders.  He and his wife put them up for awhile, until the agents track them down.  They manage to escape once again and hole up for the winter at Charlie's grandfather's cabin on a lake in Vermont.
The story takes off from here with suspense building and horrifying consequences.

I am not a fan of paranormal literature, but this is the second Stephen King book I have read, and despite my misgivings, I have to admit to enjoying them.  King has a way of bringing the recent past to life by using product names and realistic settings.  In this case the reader is transported back to the late sixties and seventies when the government was conducting experiments with various drugs and LSD on unwitting volunteers.  Besides he is an excellent writer.  His characters may be strange but they are believable.  You might enjoy this book for a change of pace or even as a blast from the past.