"The Bridge"

The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury

I haven't got much to say other than that I didn't enjoy it. It's predictable, everybody is too sweet and perfect and it's more than a little bit unrealistic. I guess unrealistic is what everybody wants this time of year given the popularity of tv Christmas movies, but this one really stretches the limits of credibility. I can handle a reasonable amount of seasonal sap, just not quite this much.   

"All The Light We Cannot See"

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

There is so much going on in this book I hardly know where to begin. It's crammed full of characters, plot lines, and timelines, though it is written in short chapters, sometimes only a paragraph or two on a page, which makes it easier to process. It's written in thirteen sections but I couldn't see much logic in the divisions until I made a list of the sections and the main ideas presented in each one. I have difficulty understanding things if I can't put them in some kind of order or see the plan they are laid out in, so sometimes drawing "maps" of stories brings clarity. If I hadn't been leading a discussion at book club I probably would have simply read it and found it slightly disorienting. Going into it a little deeper uncovered layers of meaning I would otherwise have missed.

One main character is Werner Pfennig, a young orphan in Germany who joins the Hitler Youth rather than end up working in a coal mine, as his father did before him. He and his sister, Jutta, listen to science programs broadcast from France on an old radio, and Werner develops an interest that will set him on a course he would never have foreseen.

The other main character is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl, who is the grand-daughter of the voice Werner heard on the radio. She lives with her father in Paris until the Germans move in, then she and her father go to Saint Malo where her great uncle, Etienne, lives in the house from which the radio programs were broadcast.

The chapters alternate between Werner's story and Marie Laure's: his time at the orphanage, then at the Hitler Youth training facility, and finally his service in the German army; and her time in Paris, then the changing circumstances of her life in Saint Malo before and after it, too, is occupied, her father is arrested and she begins helping with resistance efforts.

There are other significant characters whose stories are told in their own short chapters among those of Werner and Marie-Laure. And there's a diamond. A very large, cursed diamond, that may or may not have powers of its own. I'll leave you to decide what to think about that. To me it was superfluous to the story, which could have been told just as well without the supernatural aspect. I thought it took away from the gravitas of the story and unfortunately, lessens its significance.

Books that offer insight into the human condition, or that reveal hidden or forgotten historical realities are often the best books and the ones that become important either to the reader specifically or to society in general. I think this one tried to be that, but fell somewhat short. In my opinion, and I do realize it's only my opinion - this book did win a Pulitzer - it's over-stuffed with attempted wisdom, motifs, symbols, figures of speech, and imagery. I felt like it was trying too hard to be profound on every page, when sometimes what I really wanted was more story or dialogue to help me know the characters better. I found some of its proverbs unfathomable:

"The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the globe.The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it. It is only movement and love;it is the living infinite." 

"Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air."

And some of it I simply found stale and overused:

"Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solutions."

"You know the greatest lesson in history? It's that history is whatever 
the victors say it is. That's the lesson."

"Sometimes the eye of the hurricane is the safest place to be"

"'Is it right,' Jutta says, 'to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'"

To be fair, there were also wonderful descriptions, figures of speech, etc, some chilling and others beautiful, many of which stopped me in my tracks to read again just to enjoy the way he put the words together:

  "One hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners."

"The drain moans; the cluttered house crowds in close"

"Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor."

If I was asked what this book is about, I'd start with the war story, but it's also about vision and hearing, good and evil, light and dark, water and fire, the natural world, things hidden within other things, radio technology, fear and courage, free will and choices, propaganda, the pointlessness of war, how it devalues human life, and how even in the midst of the horror some will still offer kindness. It's also about how children were brainwashed in Nazi Germany, the French resistance, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Debussy's Clair De Lune, and the phrase "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever" which appears throughout the book. And it's about a spooky diamond. That diamond made me feel like I was reading two different genres that somehow got stuffed between the same covers.

It's a book that deserves more than a cursory reading. There are dots to connect all the way through, and interesting things to uncover - like the foreshadowing of one character's death and the exquisite irony of someone ending up in the very position he had compromised all his standards to avoid. There are puzzles in the story, and the story itself is a puzzle.   

Although there were aspects of the book I didn't enjoy, I don't want to leave the impression that I didn't like it at all. It showed me things I'd never seen, taught me things I didn't know, and will stay with me, I'm sure, for a long, long time. It's a moving, in some ways beautiful story and most definitely worth reading, I just think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't tried so hard to say so much about so many things.  

 One last thing. There is something about this book that makes me . I think this is the third book I've read where the reader is meant to sympathize with the Nazi character. Now before anybody gets defensive, I'll state for the record that of course I know the German people suffered. Bombs and bullets killed and maimed Germans just like they did other people and Nazis grieved their dead the same way as anybody else. I also realize not all German people were supportive of the Nazi regime. Having said that, I wonder if lines are being blurred, and I wonder why. The Nazi cause was evil and I think we absolutely must remember that so it never, ever, happens again. The bombing by the Allies that takes place in this novel and which we are meant to find horrifying, had some hard consequences yes, but it doesn't begin to compare to the horror of the Nazi bombing campaigns. The Allies were pushing back the darkness the Nazis were spreading. There may be good and bad on both sides, there always is, but the bottom line is the Nazi agenda was evil and it was right to stop it. That is a line that should never be blurred.

"The Name of the Rose"

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Well. This sure wasn't light, summer reading. I kept wanting to put it down to read something less strenuous but then I'd find myself another thirty pages in and by the time I got to 400 there was just no way to abandon it. It's over 600 pages, and it's not easy reading, still there's something about the writing, and the story, and the characters that wouldn't let me go.

The setting is a fourteenth century Italian abbey. A monk, Matthew, and his young assistant, Adso, have been sent there on a particular mission, but when they arrive they are asked to investigate the murder of a young monk. In the seven days they are there, other crimes occur and they are drawn into the darker side of monastic life. Some of it deals with ordinary human weakness and sin, but there are other passages, long and philosophical, about things like the purpose of laughter and whether it's good or evil.

There's an ancient library on the abbey's top floor, a dark and musty labyrinth, the secrets of which are known only to the Abbot and the appointed librarian. Matthew and Adso have to figure out how to get in and out, how all the rooms connect and why one room seems to be missing. The book has diagrams thank goodness or I'd have been as lost as they were.

Although this is a murder mystery, the mental workout you get while you're reading it makes it far more. It will have you turning back to try to figure out what just happened, or to understand how he got you started on this particular train of thought, or to see how this new piece of the puzzle fits into the whole. It quickly becomes clear that the author is a scholar with a brilliant mind and that your job as his reader is to hang on and try to keep up. By the time I was finished, I was simply grateful for the amazing world he created and allowed me to share. As one reviewer said, the detective story is just "the frosting on a rather rich cake".

Another review called it "a philosophical and intellectual exercise". I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was worth the effort. The rich, detailed history; the ideas; the architecture; the character types, the glorious books - it was an education. If I was asked if I liked it, I wouldn't know what to say. Like seems a trivial word for such a book. I am very glad I read it, and I know I will never forget it.

Eight Books, One Post

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield (Book 1 in the Provincial Lady series)

I loved it. Written as a fictional diary but based on her own life, it's witty and fun and I love her writing. She lives a lifestyle I can't even imagine but still she makes herself relate-able in various ways. She's intelligent but scatterbrained, attractive but awkward, well-to-do but always short of money. She can see the ridiculous in everyday situations and she knows how to tell a story. Very, very entertaining.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Having long ago seen a movie based on this play and not being particularly impressed with it, I have to say I enjoyed reading it a lot more. I found it deeply emotional, more atmospheric, more intelligent and altogether a better story.

Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This year I’m reading some Canadian history as part of my own ‘Canada 150’ celebration and this was one of my choices. I’d forgotten how beautiful it is, beautiful and sad and a wonderful story to get lost in. Worth reading and re-reading.

The Pride of the Peacock by Victoria Holt

I have no idea where I got this book or how many decades it’s been on my shelf, but I got tired of seeing it there so I finally read it. It wasn’t anything special, but it was ok as light reading in the romance/adventure category.

Islands In The Stream by Ernest Hemingway
I don’t know what to say about this book. I loved Hemingway’s writing as always, and I did enjoy parts of the story, just not so much the rest of it. The first part is about his life on a Caribbean island, the last part about his war experience. I am fascinated with his writing, the simple perfection of sentences that are never choked with adjectives and adverbs. It's like breathing pure air. It's all plain truth and real living and it’s exhilarating. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is, as long as I can immerse myself in the crystal clear air of his writing.

The Road to Confederation by Donald Creighton

I knew my understanding of the events leading to confederation was patchy but I had no idea how much I didn’t know. This book filled in all the blanks. I learned a lot, almost fell asleep a couple of times in the slower parts, but soldiered on and finished it. It’s well written, has a lot of interesting stories about the people involved and was well worth reading. On the negative side, it’s deplorable that a book like this contains no reference to the people who lived here generations before the English or French ever decided to come over and claim it for themselves. 

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield  (Book 2 in the Provincial Lady series)

As enjoyable as the first book was. Taking a break from the series to read our Book Club book and a couple of others I want to get finished. I’ll do the last two in the series later.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I did not enjoy this one. I had high expectations because of reviews that said it was a breakthrough for women, showing one woman’s journey through her own sexual and cultural awakening. Unfortunately her “awakening” led her not to enlightenment or joy or wisdom, but to choices that could not ever be considered good for her or anyone else. A lot of potential, a big disappointment. 

"Nicholas and Alexandra"

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

This account of the last Zsar and his family begins in 1894 and ends in 1918, but there are lots of stories from before that time filling out this jam-packed account of Russia's fascinating, if sometimes bloody, history. All I'd ever read was bad Zsar/good peasants accounts in school books, but knowing nothing is ever that simple I wanted to learn more. This book, published in 1967, looked intimidating but was instead a riveting story that kept me up reading late into the nights. What I thought was just another history book turned out to be so very much more.

Massie is truly a great writer. He makes history come alive and lets the reader feel like it's all happening to them, now. He has done extensive research, sources listed chapter by chapter at the back of the book, and shows us the Imperial family from all sides, good, bad, and ordinary. He takes us into their personal relationship as husband and wife, and their day-to-day family life with their five children. Knowing how the story ends makes it all the more poignant and real.

I learned more about Russian and European history than I ever expected to get from any book and the exceptional thing about it is that it never gets boring. Massie's writing is conversational, easy to read,  and grippingly interesting, even the political and military parts which can easily become dry when it's told only in facts and dates. When Massie relates a fact, he tells you about the people involved, who they were and why they did what they did, so you get not just the facts but an understanding of the situation. This is what draws you in and keeps you hooked.

As I got toward the end, after getting to know this family and what makes them tick, I didn't know if I could make myself read what was coming. I did decide to see it through and was relieved to see it told simply and quickly, without any of the long, drawn out sensationalizing of tragedy so prevalent in today's story telling. Now I'm putting off watching the movie, afraid they won't have shown the same restraint. Maybe one of you can tell me if I should watch it.

At the back of the book there are family trees for both Nicholas and Alexandra that were incredibly helpful, and the insides of both covers are maps of Russia so you can locate the different areas where the story is played out. There is also a section of family photographs in the book's center that I found myself referring to again and again. A couple of interesting things I learned from the family trees: 1. Queen Victoria is great great Grandmother to both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. 2. At the time of WW1, the King of England, The German Kaiser and the Zsar of Russia were all first cousins. In fact, just about all of Europe's royalty were and are related through Queen Victoria's offspring.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you like history or family sagas; politics, royalty, biography or intrigue; or even if you just want to get lost in a good (and true) story, I think you'll find what you're looking for in Nicholas and Alexandra.

"Lydia"

Lydia by Clare Darcy

  • This is my first Clare Darcy novel.
  • It is, like the two Georgette Heyer novels I've read, a frothy Regency romance.
  • Plot: a young woman, her brother and their grandmother arrive in England for the purpose of improving their financial condition, through marriage or rich relatives, the method doesn't really matter. Lydia, beautiful and fiesty, is linked romantically with various wealthy suitors but falls for the one person she swears she could never be interested in. These novels all end the same so it's not really a spoiler to say that all the main characters end up with true love, great wealth and enviable social standing. No surprises, no sadness - that's why we read these books, right?
  • I like this time period in any novel, but I like those better that were actually written in that time. I know the authors of the newer ones do lots of research to make sure the fashion, manners, morals and language are authentic, but I feel like they're trying too hard. There are too many details brought to the reader's attention that don't advance the story in any way, and so much Regency slang used that it becomes tedious to read. All the tricks they use to make the novel authentic backfire and make it feel false. They sell though, and I guess that's the goal of the authors and the publishers. Jane Austen's wonderful books would probably get nowhere in today's publishing world.
  • I always find it disappointing, after reading a novel meant to convince me I'm experiencing life in a bygone era, to later discover it was written in 1973. That's not a critique, just a quirk of mine. I guess the reason I look in the first place is because something about the book doesn't feel authentic and it's a let down to find out there's a good reason for that. There are of course thousands of books set in history that are so well written you never even question the authenticity, but these are not those. 
  • Darcy and Heyer are authors I might turn to when I want to read something I don't have to think about, a harmless distraction from real life and weightier books. I may not read a lot of them (or I may, who knows...), but I am keeping their names on my go-to list for light reading. Very light reading. Not that there's anything wrong with that.  
 

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