Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again". Such a great opening line. Immediately you feel Manderley is a wonderful place that is now out of reach, an experience that once was but can never be again. The sense of longing that line creates lingers throughout the rest of the story.

Rebecca is the deceased wife of Maxim de Winter, owner of Manderley. Though she is never present physically, the memory of her, her larger-than-life personality and the impact left on the living characters are the core of the story.

The narrator is a young woman traveling in Monte Carlo as companion to an rather nasty older woman. She meets Maxim, falls in love with him and the rest of the book is about their relationship with each other, with Manderley and it's staff, and with Rebecca, whose memory just will not go away.

The interesting thing about this story is that the narrator is never named. She is only ever referred to as Mrs. de Winter and "she".  At first I found it annoying that I didn't know her name because it made her seem ineffectual, more of a shadow of a person than a real one. I've read that Daphne Du Maurier didn't name her because she couldn't come up with a name to suit her. Whether that is true or not, leaving her nameless certainly was effective in diminishing her as a person and leaving her secondary to Rebecca and pretty much everyone else.

It's hard to talk about someone who doesn't have a name: I'll have to call her "She". She had difficulty adjusting to life at Manderley and to her position as lady of the manor. Her nervousness was understandable. She was very young and inexperienced and had never lived the sort of lifestyle required of her present situation. Understandable or not, I got frustrated with her at times. She was afraid to explore the house and and get caught somewhere she didn't need to be, she was afraid of dealing with the staff and she just could not make herself take charge of situations when she needed to. Once, when she broke a china ornament in the morning room, she quickly scooped up the shattered pieces, put them in an envelope and hid them in the back of a drawer, not telling anyone until she was forced to because someone else was accused of stealing it. I wanted her to stand up to people more; her insecurity was almost embarrassing.

As for Maxim, I don't think I like him much. For the first half of the book, he's remote and sometimes slightly superior. He treats "She" (that just sounds so wrong) like a puppy, rather than his wife. Then there is a scene where he confesses what actually happened to Rebecca and his entire personality changes. He becomes tender and kind and starts telling her how much he loves her and how lost he'd be without her. I realize that unburdening oneself of guilt will bring relief, but if he really loved her so much, why didn't he mention that when he proposed? Really, it was a proposal, people, and he couldn't bring himself to say he loved her? And what was the purpose of treating her like a child or a pet? Why could he not call her "darling" until after he confessed?  If his guilt didn't prevent him marrying her, why did it prevent him being loving toward her?

I was a little dismayed that it never seemed to bother "She" that she was married to someone who could do what Maxim had done. Good grief, she was afraid of the servants but not him? The ending bothered me too. I don't want to give it away, so I'll just say that in some way justice was done, but in another way, it just didn't feel right at all.

This book may never be one of my favorites, but I liked it well enough and it was well written so I can recommend it, especially to anyone who likes a mystery. I've been putting off reading it because the cover is old and beat up (pathetic aren't I?) and I'm glad I can finally cross it off my list. And if that's the only real benefit I can see from having read it, I'm ok with that.

Friday Blog Hop

I haven't taken part in the hop for the past few weeks and I almost forgot about it this week. Just made it! For those of you who are new to the hop, it's a weekly blog party hosted by Crazy-For-Books every weekend. You sign up on that site, post about it on your own blog, then start visiting the over 200 blogs listed every week. This is how I've found most of the blogs I follow and I can't tell you how many great book recommendations it's given me.

Each week the host asks those taking part to answer a question. This week it's -

When you read a book that you just can't get into, do you stick it out and keep reading or move to your next title?

This is something I've struggled with a lot. For one thing it isn't fair to review a book I haven't finished, and besides that so much work goes into writing a book that it seems almost disrespectful to the author to not finish it. However, as middle age has begun to fade in the distance for me, I realize I no longer have an endless number of years to read all the books I want to read. So, in the past year I have "not finished" 4 books and I have a page on my blog listing the titles and why I didn't finish reading them. These are books from my tbr. Books on my "Guilt List" are different. I put them on the list because I feel bad, or uneducated, or negligent or something about not having read them. So I'm finishing them whether I like them or not as part of my continuing education. So far so good, but if I come to a really horrible one I don't know if I'll be able to force myself to finish or not. I got all the way through Anna Karenina though so that probably bodes well for the others on that list. Time will tell.

Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely weekend,

"The Cellist Of Sarajevo"

The Cellist Of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

This is a story told without a lot of emotion, as though a numbness has settled into the pages. Such horrific loss, unthinkable living conditions and fear from which there is never a moment of relief, probably leaves you with only two choices: become numb or go insane.

It is the characters who drive this story and not the plot itself. These people are braver than I can begin to comprehend. My favorite character is the cellist. He has determined to play his cello on the street where 22 people were killed by a bomb as they stood in line waiting for bread. He will play one day for each person lost. His refusal to be beaten down, even when he too is numb with suffering is a stunning testament to the strength of the life force within human beings.

The other main characters are: Kenan, a young man trying to provide for his wife and children in a bombed out shell of a city with no ready source of food or water, Dragan, a 65 year old man whose wife and 18 year old son got out of the city just before the war started, and Arrow, a young female soldier. Arrow is a skilled sniper who is turning into someone she doesn't recognize anymore and believes it has to be that way if she is to survive this war. Then she is assigned to protect the cellist.

The description of the city in ruins is as real as the room you're sitting in. The loss of the theater and the library, the image of a city once so full of life dying all around them is heartbreaking. Here are a couple of quotes that really got to me:

"Everything around him is grey. He's not sure where it came from, if it was always there and the war has simply stripped away the color that hid it, or if this grey is the color of war."

"For days afterward the ash of a million books floated down onto the city like snow" (describing the burning of a library housed in a century-old building).

I love the way this book is written. The four stories are told from their own unique viewpoints, but still they fit together like pieces of a puzzle to give a bigger picture of what war is doing to this city and it's people. The cellist and his music are the thread of hope running through all their stories. I couldn't quite imagine how the author was going to tie it all up at the end, but wow, it was beautifully done I thought.

Rather than give too much away, I'll just quote another few lines to transition from the sense of despair in the first part of the book to the hope that begins to rise toward the end:
"The men in the hills didn't have to be murderers. The men in the city didn't have to lower themselves to fight their attackers. She didn't have to be filled with hatred. The music demanded that she remember this, that she know to a certainty that the world still held the capacity for goodness. The notes were proof of that."

Each character, in their own way, comes to the same conclusion. They would hold on to their humanity no matter what and refuse to become the soulless creatures their enemies would turn them into. It's a sad story, but there are good things too. The ingenuity of people who have only themselves to depend on and the raw hope that is still there when everything else is gone make this a beautiful book. I watched a movie the other night that asked "Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?". These characters face that question and their journeys to the answer make this book well worth reading.

This is my fifth book for the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by John at Book Mine Set

"Sarah's Key"

Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay

This is one of those stories that will stay with me a long time I think. It tells of ten year old Sarah, her parents and her little brother, who were living in Paris in 1942. Sarah and her parents were among the Jewish people rounded up by Paris police under Nazi command, dragged from their homes and herded like cattle into the Velodrome d'Hiver stadium where they were kept for days with little water or food, no beds, no facilities and no idea what was going to happen to them.

Sarah's little brother, Michel. was sleeping when the Police arrived at their apartment. When she woke him he was terrified and didn't want to go with her; he wanted to hide in their secret place, a hidden cupboard in the wall where they played together every day. She knew he would be safe from the police there and they had toys, books, cushions and even a flask of water in there so he'd be fine till they got back. She quietly locked him in and promised to come back for him later when the police were finished with them. She slipped the key into her pocket, sure it would not be long.

The story alternates between 1942 and 2002. The more recent time setting concerns another family living in Paris. Julia, mother of eleven year old Zoe and wife of native Parisian, Bertrand, is an American journalist assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the "Vel' d 'Hiv" roundup of Jews in Paris. As the story unfolds, a connection between the two families in discovered and Julia becomes consumed with learning more.

About halfway through the book the alternating between time-lines stops and the rest of the story is told in Julia's time.  Anything else we learn about Sarah and her family is told as history and not from Sarah's time. I rather wish the author had continued writing Sarah's life as she lived it. It was by far the most intriguing of the two stories, and by that point I was completely invested in  this little girl so it was disappointing when her voice was gone, though I do understand it was necessary to heighten the mystery.

Throughout Sarah's story she is referred to as "the girl", which helps the reader to feel how quickly people were stripped of their personal identities. They were treated like a pack of unwanted animals. Who they were, their occupations, their pasts, what they thought or felt, none of these made any difference at all to their captors. They were considered nothing, all equally nothing, and that part of the book is hard to read.

The present day story of Julia and her family feels a little tame in comparison. Though it was perfectly readable, for me it was missing the fascination of Sarah's story. The characters are fairly well drawn, except for Zoe. I found it impossible to accept her as an 11 year old; she was just too adult in all her conversation.

I liked this book. I knew nothing of the experience of Jewish people in Paris during the war, and though it is a horrific part of history it is important to know. The author does a good job of unraveling the mystery of Sarah's life at a pace that keeps you involved and she provides a couple of subplots to give the story depth. And then, it's set in France which gives any book extra points in my view.

Sarah's Key is definitely worth reading and would make a great book club selection.

"Letters For Emily"

Letters For Emily by Camron Wright

Well this book certainly was the change I was looking for after Anna Karenina. I read the entire book in one day of just picking it up now and then as a break from something else I was doing. It's quick, light and easy, which leads me to a question I want to ask.

Do you review books you'd class as literature and this lighter kind of novel in the same way?  I always struggle with that and would like to hear some of your opinions on it. It seems almost unfair to use the same criteria for a book like this one as I would for Willa Cather or Jane Austen.

If I compared "Letters For Emily" to serious literary novels, I'd have to say it's a tad cheesy. The characters don't develop much and neither does the plot. It's not really memorable in any way. But, if I compare it to other books of this type it's not bad. It's an ok story and not too badly written. I read it quickly at a time when I needed a light read, so for me it accomplished it's purpose, or at least my purpose for it.

So. I have this struggle every time I read a book like this. I can't say it's very good, but I don't know if it's fair to dismiss it as fluff. There are books I would dismiss as fluff, but they'd have to be, well, fluffier than this one. And maybe what I say about it doesn't matter anyway since I'm not making a judgment on whether books are good or bad. This blog contains "thoughts on books I'm reading", so maybe I don't have to worry about being fair. I don't know. I just don't want someone who would love this book to skip it because of what they read here. Some of my favorite books got terrible reviews on other sites but fortunately I read the book before I read those reviews.

I'm getting tired of hearing myself talk about this so I'm stopping now. I do want to hear what others have to say though. Do you have one standard for all novels, or do you critique them within their specific genres?

"Anna Karenina"

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

(clears throat)............I HAVE FINISHED READING ANNA KARENINA!!!

There really should be balloons, or seventy-six trombones leading a big parade.
I am going to my guilt list to cross it off now. Ok, I'm back and that was very satisfying.

Now to give some kind of review. Hmmmm. Where to start. This novel has been read by millions and analyzed and reviewed and studied and critiqued by far more learned people than I and any review I attempt could only sound pathetic. So, I will simply say what I thought as I was reading it, though not everything I thought, because this is a family-friendly blog.

First of all did it really have to be over 800 pages long? Surely what Mr. Tolstoy was trying to accomplish could have been done in a few hundred less. But he is nothing if not thorough in making his point.

And I have to ask: are all Russians bi-polar? If this is the only Russian book you ever read, you would certainly think so. One minute they are ecstatic with joy and the next they have sunk into the depths of despair and there is no reasoning with them. And this dramatic change seems to come about with only a word, or a look, or a thought. I thought my house was all drama all the time, but we don't have anything on these people. Every conversation is an emotional roller coaster. Every love affair is passionate, dying, passionate again, etc. It's exhausting.

Tolstoy himself gives a good description of this when Levin refers to a concert he attended. "Gaiety, sadness, despair, tenderness and triumph appeared without justification, like a madman's feelings. And, just as with a madman, these feelings passed unexpectedly."  Madmen indeed. I questioned the sanity of some of these characters frequently. He goes on to say "All through the performance, Levin felt like a deaf man watching people dance." Perfect. He has described exactly how I felt all the way through Anna Karenina.

I didn't dislike the book, but I also didn't love it. I couldn't relate to any of the characters much. I didn't like any of them really. The Anna of the title seems brittle and distant. She isn't the character I will remember most from this story. All the characters have a harsh and blundering way of speaking to one another that I found un-natural.

I'm beginning to think I should stick to books written in English. There is only so much a translator can do. When a writer puts together a phrase in his native language, he chooses words that will both make his point and flow well together. The translator can choose English words that will make the same point, but much of the time the flow will be lost. Since I read more for the "poetry" of the prose than for the story, what I'm looking for is often lost in translation.

From what I've read, people consider this a great love story.  There is a love story in it, two actually, but to me they seemed secondary to the social, political and spiritual principles being analyzed. The last few chapters of the book deal almost exclusively with one character's spiritual struggles and awakening. I enjoyed all the philosophical discussions about the workers vs. the landowners and who was entitled to what. Tolstoy made some interesting observations about profit being immoral if it does not correspond to the work done to earn it. All of these things would make good topics for discussion at a book club, but my book club would shoot me if I asked them to read anything with 800 pages, because they all have lives.

One section I thought wonderful was where Levin knew that the woman he loved was also in love with him. I loved how he believed everyone he met was in on the secret. He found everything he looked at beautiful and all people kind and generous. The world was turning just for him and there was no flaw to be found in anything. What a lovely picture of what being in love does for you. 

Tolstoy also addresses the other side of that when Anna is overwhelmed by her feelings of despair. Everyone she looks at is unfriendly and unattractive. Her eyes see people as ugly. She sees no worth or beauty in anything around her. Life loses all meaning and there is no point to anything. Not as pleasant to read as the happier side of that coin, but just as real.

I must be honest and say that in places it was just plain boring. Bang-my-head-on-the-wall boring. Can you say that about Tolstoy without being struck by lightening? The truth is, if Tolstoy had never written a book, I don't think it would have affected my life in any detrimental way. Now don't get all mad and tell me how uneducated and shallow I am. I know already. I just couldn't get into this story and I didn't enjoy the writing. I am glad I read it though, because it was such fun crossing it off my guilt list and now I can recognize references to it in other books. And I will confess, that even now as I'm writing about it, the book grows better in my memory. Funny how that happens.

The Brothers Karmazov is also on my list. I don't know how long it is and I'm not going to find out until after I reward myself with a couple of lighter novels. Tolstoy and I will have to pace ourselves if we're going to have any kind of relationship at all. I think it's best to take it slow. Real slow.