Friday, December 9, 2011

Second Reading, Jonathan Yardley

Every year my Christmas wish reading list is LONG!

This year it is definitely NOT a short list either: WOW, there are so many wonderful books that have been recently published, and of course I am waiting for a number of TBP (to be published) to go on my TBR (to be read) pile! This book by Jonathan Yardley (Second Reading) is definitely on it, as I need to mark up my own copy, with my agreements, disagreements, further recommendations, and just general comments! This book is a series of book reviews from his column of books that he reread over the course of two years. I understand how difficult it is to find time to read books, let alone reread them, but I do have a handful that I always go back to (e.g. Tolkien has been read about every five years! At the end of each reading I write my comments in a book journal and enjoy the progression of my thoughts.). We are not the same people who read some of these books as a teenager or early (busy) adult. It can be very worthwhile and enjoyable to reread these classics. Second Reading is composed of many books that you have already read, that you really should give another go at reading, re-reading, or just comparing your thoughts to his. I love his columns, second only to Michael Dirda, both superb book reviewers.

I was intrigued by his review of Rebecca by Daphne DuMurier, having also just reread it when I was sorting my bookshelves. It has such a classic opening line. This time, I was certainly much older on rereading it, not relating to the naivity or the acceptable social polish/manners of a different time. BUT then of course I discovered that I hadn't seen the film (well there are several, but it is the Laurence Olivier that everyone raves about). So there I was off to the Library for the dvd (Second Reading is also available at the Library!) Excellent, especially with a cup of Earl Grey tea, on a snowy afternoon. I highly recommend this, especially in the throes of Christmas shopping. And the story isn't over. I also mentioned his thought provoking analysis at one of my book clubs, where we always try to read at least one classic a year. Several people sheepishly revealed they had not read it, and viola! We ordered the BOOK GROUP IN A BOOK BAG from the Library!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chris Bohjalian The Night Strangers (2011)

Evidently I didn't post this review - so here it is!
Bohjalian is a new Vermont author for me- I was very excited to find him in the mystery section with an entire series to read. My first reaction was how had I missed him!? The first chapter was riveting, well written, and quite intriguing, especially with the local detail of my home state. I do not normally read about airplane crashes, so there was some trepidation, but after having become a pilot myself, his information was pitch perfect and interesting. I was sucked into this book, recognizing people, locations, seasons, traditions....until it hit me. He is Vermont's answer to Stephen King....oh no! How was I going to finish this? I am often told that King's books are "just fantasy Helen not real!" Ha. His books are peopled with characters I am very familiar with in my everyday living! Which makes it extremely scary to think my next door neighbor is an axe murderer, bodies are buried in the cellar or back yard....and I did have a car that was nearly Christine.... I like sleeping at night so often avoid King's novels....(loved Shawshank, highly recommend his book on writing, enjoyed many of his short stories, but am NOT going to convert to horror anytime soon...).

So what was I doing in the middle of The Night Strangers??? I panicked- I went to the last three chapters, trying to avoid some of the nightmares. I did figure it out fairly correctly, but still didn't sleep well for two nights.... I do not know what distinguishes some of the horror genre from mystery...Many of John Connolly's books are equally disturbing with similar violence and supernatural, but I would recommend each and every one. He is an extraordinary Irish writer! His latest The Burning Soul continues the story of Charlie Parker (please read in order!!)

I loved reading Bohjalian's bio online - recommend checking out a number of his sites. I had not made the connection to one of his first books : Midwives (1998) about a rural VT midwife Sibyl Danforth, which was selected as an Oprah Book and won the NE Book Award (2002). Bohjalian lives in a small Vermont town (pop 900) and found his writing voice here. He is known for thoughtful characters making the reader interested in their stories. Which is why I did finish the book The Night Strangers, as I needed to know what happened, not necessarily all that happened! I enjoyed reading that the Night Strangers was a ghost story inspired by a door in his own basement (definitely the kind of door that I don't want to find, and one that he said he boarded up and hoped the walls of his house didn't bleed). He has long been a fan of ghost stories; the only book he owns from his childhood is Edgar Alan Poe's Great Tales.
I continued to think about this book long after I left it; and have continued to read more of his work. Excellent material.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Skeleons at the Feast, Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the Feast is a novel by Vermont Author Chris Bohjalian (2008). I purchased several of his books while I was in one of my favourite bookstores: Rivendell in Montpelier, Vt this autumn. I read his Night Strangers (2011) first as it was an ebook from our library (Rochester) and reviewed that earlier. I was intrigued enough to continue through his repertoire, and delighted I did.
Skeletons at the Feast is also a well written historical novel that is absolutely fascinating, extremely well researched and based partly on a WWII Prussian diary (1920-1945). Both the diary and the novel detail the brutal last days of the war when many Poles and Germans fled through a Nazi Germany they barely knew ahead of the Russian Army, hoping to reach Allied lines.
The characters include 18 year old Anna Emmerich a sheltered daughter of Prussian aristocrats and her younger innocent brother Theo. There is also 20 year old Scottish POW Callum Finella, who was forced labor on their remote sugar beet farm. Another important character is Wehrmacht corporal (of many names, many taken from German officers whom he killed, assuming their identities), who is in reality Uri Singer, a jew who escaped his fate in Auschwitz and is hiding in plain sight. In a parallel storyline, Jeanne and Cecille are French Jewish prisoners on a forced death march to another concentration camp.
These descriptions are unforegttably haunting, depicting harrowing treacherous times of man's inhumanity to man. Very clearly no one wins in war, yet we are all susceptible to the hope that lies in this novel. Plan ahead - I don't know how you will put this book down at night; I read straight through. I am still asking questions about personal responsibility, moral deliberations and thinking of the concept of justice vs revenge.

This book is a beautiful, moving tribute to his friends and neighbours, their lives and ours interwined. There are so many aspects of history we never learn, so many personal stories that give you the realism you can't (hope to never) repeat. Another fascinating read on this theme is by Sparrow Author Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace about the flight out of France into Italy, where 43,000 Jews were hidden during the war.
"There's a saying in Hebrew... 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' " Both novels are more than 'holocaust literature' and deserve a wide audience. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.
HWM Dec 2011