The Glass Room

The Glass RoomThe Glass Room by Simon Mawer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fictional main characters, but based on a real house: Villa Tugendhat (http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/). The house serves as the lens through which we view the characters and the action, sort of like a camera. Lots of metaphors about light and space, plays on words (Raum/Traum), and philosophical musings. But on the whole, I didn’t get it. The characters were cold, unemotional, and not very likeable. Lots of sex and sex talk, which left me cold. Perhaps that appeals to men – as a woman it didn’t appeal to me and got old very quickly. On the other hand, I thought the three women of the story, Liesl, Hana, and Katalyn were more real than the men in their lives. The story was all intellectual, scientific, clinical without any emotion. The men all had mistresses without any feelings of conflict or guilt. The women all seemed to have lesbian tendencies. Really? Was this another metaphor for the Zeitgeist of change after WWI? The expansion of old boundaries? When the Nazis took over the house and turned it into a scientific laboratory, I felt like the war was “out there” somewhere. The Landauers had left and made a new life elsewhere. There are some great ideas here and for that I could almost give this book a higher rating. I enjoyed the promise of the new house – and the desire to fill it with art and music and all those things that make life transcendent. But with light comes shadows – the shadows of infidelity, the shadows of war, of keeping secrets – the idealism that first drives Nazism, Communism, modernism (and other -isms) eventually shatters like glass.

Book description: High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass. This radiant 1930s house, with its unique Glass Room, quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WWII gather. The house passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, and bears witness to both the best and the worst history of Eastern Europe.

Life After Life

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

WARNING: I shall try not to give anything away, but this is a difficult book to review without comments that could be spoilers for some readers.

While this isn’t a perfect book, the difference between 4 and 5 stars for me is that I would read (or listen) to this book again. Maybe even right away. It wasn’t what I expected – girl living life over and over until she gets it “right.” Who is to say what is right? She make choices, she is given a sense of deja vu in the next life and is able to make different choices when that situation comes up again. Sometimes it takes multiple lifetimes to break past a certain point – the Spanish flu epidemic for example. So I expected a final lifetime in which all the right things happen to break the cycle, sort of like the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. Instead, it turns out to be more like the image of the snake eating its tail, the ouroboros, which is also a symbol of infinity. We end up right back where we started. Or do we?

Philosophically, there is a lot to ponder here. I happen to be someone who believes in reincarnation, and in the idea that maybe we do have a number of parallel lives where our “soul” experiences something like Ursula does – different versions of life according to what choices we make. If we die in one parallel, the lessons get absorbed in the others and life continues, with different threads breaking off and coming back together again over and over. In previous books by Ms. Atkinson, I have commented on her talent for taking multiple plot threads and weaving them together in the end (Case Histories), or taking an event and then spinning off plot threads (One Good Turn). So this is yet another exploration of the same kind of thing. And I think she does it brilliantly.

There is also her magical way with words, with painting scenes and characters. Even with so much built in repetition, I did not lose interest. Something is different each time. How will she avoid getting the flu this time, how will she avoid getting raped, how will she survive the London Blitz?

This is definitely a book to be savored, and a book to be reread.

Book description: On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. Ursula dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on toward its second cataclysmic world war. Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can, will she?

Audiobook narrated by Fenella Woolgar.

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I were a “romance” reader I would undoubtedly have given this book a higher rating. It is the story of two sisters navigating life during the Nazi occupation of France. Although I wouldn’t call it a romance, it is written like a romance – told in a highly dramatic fashion. The plot is ultimately satisfying. Although the first half of the book was rather slow (I’ve abandoned other books by Hannah for the same reason), I stuck with it and by the second half I was thoroughly invested in the characters and what happened to them. There were some errors with facts (hummingbirds in France?) that left me wondering what historical facts I could trust. But nothing was so jarring that it threw me out of the story. The framework is “true” and is based on real people who risked their lives to save downed pilots and Jewish children. This would make a marvelous movie.

Book description: In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France … but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive. Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can … completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

The Hollow City

Hollow City (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, #2)Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll continue to be generous with this series and give it 3 stars, which is still a huge drop from the first book. I didn’t dislike it, but it had none of what made the first book such a memorable experience. I suppose for one thing, the world-building has been established, so we don’t have the mystery of figuring out what is going on. And while I still find the odd photos intriguing, the story is too much contrived by the photos instead of being an accompaniment to the story. While Jacob seems a little older and wiser in this book, there is not really any character development. The whole love story angle is very flat. I’m not a fan of cliff-hanger endings. It worked in the first book, and despite being a cliffhanger there was a sense of completion. This book just feels like “filler” material to me – enough to make a movie out of, but a pretty shallow plot for a book. Ransom Riggs writes well enough, and the historical setting is good, but I hope he will give more attention to plot and characters in the 3rd installment.

Description: Jacob Portman and his newfound friends journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. There, they hope to find a cure for their beloved headmistress, Miss Peregrine. But in this war-torn city, hideous surprises lurk around every corner. And before Jacob can deliver the peculiar children to safety, he must make an important decision about his love for Emma Bloom.

Primrose Day

Primrose Day title pagePrimrose Day by Carolyn Haywood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my favorite book in 1st or 2nd grade. I read it over and over. It must have made a big impression. All these years later I have to wonder did my interest in England start with this book or are we drawn to things because of past lives? Did I identify with Merry because we both had flowers for middle names? Or because I had moved from New England to Minnesota when I was 5? I’m sure the language differences weren’t as great, but there were some. I loved that the British word for truck was lorry, pronounced the same as my nickname – Laurie. I’ve always loved learning about other countries and cultures and am still enamored of the British Isles.

I could not find a cover photo of the original edition, and I do not like the modern covers on reprints of this book, so I’ve scanned the title page above. I remember the cover as being orange and it probably had the heavy duty “library binding.” I requested the original 1942 edition from Interlibrary Loan. It came from the Twin Cities Anderson Library Children’s Literature Collection. It is a plain yellow cloth cover and still has the old pocket in the back with the date due card. I have to admit that just thumbing through it and reading a few words here and there and looking at the original drawings (by Carolyn Haywood) brought tears to my eyes.

Primrose Day
Carolyn Haywood wrote stories about real children doing ordinary things. And even though it was first published in 1942, these are things that children still do today – playing with pets, dealing with homesickness, being teased at school, making presents, going on picnics, going fishing, making friends. I remember the chapter on going to an American school and being teased for using different words for things. And I remember the chapter about Merry’s birthday, and learning that primroses don’t grow wild in America. Merry would always go and pick primroses with her mother on her birthday and now she can’t even pick primroses with her aunt. But never fear – her aunt has a wonderful surprise in store.

Primroses

English primroses (Primula vulgaris)

I love gardening and I have planted primroses in my garden. The English variety are not hardy here. I had some very pretty pink Japanese primroses for a couple years, but even those are really Zone 5 and they didn’t come back last year. I must get some more, because I really do love them! I don’t think I have any pictures of them blooming, but here are some beaded primroses that I made:

Primroses_rabbit-vi

I did not remember the Scottie dog in the story, although I have always liked Scottie dogs. There were a couple of typos and things in the book that I wouldn’t have noticed as a child probably – the cook says she is “pealing” onions. And there is a reference to Mr. Ramsey being a “Scotchman” which made me cringe.

I also don’t remember the knitting, but I suppose it was around this age that I expressed an interest in learning. My grandmother tried to teach me. At first she thought she needed to reverse everything because I am left handed. I protested that she really didn’t need to do that. Us lefties are quite used to mentally reversing things for ourselves, having done it all our lives. It wouldn’t have been a problem for me at age 7 or 8, but my grandmother insisted that she had to do it for me and got herself hopelessly confused. I finally convinced her that I would be fine knitting right handed – it didn’t matter to me since knitting uses both hands equally!

Book Description: Merry Primrose Ramsey lives in England with her parents and her imaginary friend, Molly. At the outbreak of World War II, she is sent to live with her relatives in America, in a small town called Rose Valley. On the way over she meets a real best friend named Molly, who eventually moves to Rose Valley, too. Merry and her American cousin Jerry take to each other immediately and find all kinds of adventures, including rescuing a carrier pigeon and going fishing alone. Merry’s new life is not without trials. She misses her parents. She gets teased at school for the way she talks. Her puppy unravels the scarf she has spent weeks knitting for her daddy far away in England. And her birthday just won’t be the same without primroses to pick and make into a primrose chain like she always did in England…

I have been doing a bit of “Googling” and decided that Rose Valley in the story must be Rose Valley, PA, which is near Philadelphia (where Carolyn Haywood lived). It is a very small town, but would be within a couple hours train ride of NYC. It was settled by Quakers and has a very interesting history, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Valley,_Pennsylvania.

The Madonnas of Leningrad

The Madonnas of LeningradThe Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A relatively short and easy read, full of vivid descriptions of art, and war, and aging. I would have loved some photos of the museum and the artwork, but I suppose the museum holds the copyright to such things. It could have been fleshed out more. I was left with unanswered questions about large parts of Marina’s life.

Book Description:
Bit by bit, the ravages of age are eroding Marina’s grip on the everyday. An elderly Russian woman now living in America, she cannot hold on to fresh memories–the details of her grown children’s lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild–yet her distant past is miraculously preserved in her mind’s eye. Vivid images of her youth in war-torn Leningrad arise unbidden, carrying her back to the terrible fall of 1941, when she was a tour guide at the Hermitage Museum and the German army’s approach signaled the beginning of what would be a long, torturous siege on the city. As the people braved starvation, bitter cold, and a relentless German onslaught, Marina joined other staff members in removing the museum’s priceless masterpieces for safekeeping, leaving the frames hanging empty on the walls to symbolize the artworks’ eventual return. As the Luftwaffe’s bombs pounded the proud, stricken city, Marina built a personal Hermitage in her mind–a refuge that would stay buried deep within her, until she needed it once more.

Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An amazing and well-told story. Yes, it is a testament to courage, and the ability to survive, but it is also a testament to how cruel and brutal human beings can be to each other. War is a terrible thing, and that made this a hard book to listen to at times.

Book Description:
On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will. Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.