Monday, June 25, 2012

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Though I haven't done this in awhile (I've fallen down on the blogging all the way around, my apologies!), I'm participating in this event hosted by Sheila from Book Journey. Here's what I'll be doing this week:

Finishing The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
Starting Lincoln, Inc. by Jackie Hogan for future book review
Starting Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (I've really been looking forward to this one!)
Continuing to listen to True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy in the car
Maybe a magazine or two
Awaiting the arrival of a book I've ordered called Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving: 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes for Today by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine, because here's what's going on in my yard right now, and it's just the beginning:

Happy reading!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book Review: All the Roads That Lead From Home by Anne Leigh Parrish

All the Roads That Lead from Home by Anne Leigh Parrish
Published by: Press 53
Published on: August 18, 2011
Page Count: 170
Genre: Short stories
My reading format: Paperback mailed to me by author
Available formats: Paperback, Kindle e-book editions

My Review:

Most of the time I steer clear of short stories. I usually don't feel like I get to know the characters as well as I'd like to and as well as I do when I read a novel. I like that a novel can tell a story over days or decades, or anything in between. It can contain a lot of characters because given a long enough story, I can keep all of them straight. A couple years ago I won New Stories from the South 2010 from a Facebook contest by Algonquin Books and I started to be a believer in short stories. Of course, these were the best of the best from 2010 (and they produce a new set of them each year), but it made me want to give short stories more of a chance.

Luckily, Anne Leigh Parrish's All the Roads That Lead from Home, is a short story collection that is also well worth the read. The 11 stories explore similar themes through the actions and inner conflicts of a host of unforgettable characters. Only a few of these stories left me feeling positive or at least hopeful at the end. However, at the end of each of the stories that left me feeling sad or empty, this feeling was overshadowed by Parrish's beautiful and honest writing style (and besides, not every story has to have a happy ending).

The characters are memorable. There's Darlene in "Loss of Balance" who wants to take care of her father better than her stepsister can. There's Angie in "For the Taking" who struggles both in her relationship with her significant other and with pushing a piano down the sidewalk on her block. There's Pinny in "Pinny and the Fat Girl" who "didn't mind her mother being gone, because her mother was often harsh and critical...and could really sink a cold finger into Pinny's heart" (p. 62), and doesn't mind doing all the housework in her mother's absence.

The men, though they may not be as resourceful or kind as their female counterparts, are equally memorable. Vic and Lander in "Snow Angels" could come to blows at any moment over a possible inheritance. Clifford Benderhoff in "The Comforts of Home" might be an unlikely match for his neighbor Eldeen. There's the man who escaped from Clearview Nursing Home to the Dugans' house in "Our Love Could Light the World" who might rather stay where he ends up.  

Many of the stories are tied together with similar themes: vulnerable women in love with emotionally unattached men unable to meet the needs of those women, children experiencing parental abandonment, and friendships grown out of unlikely circumstances. Many of the women in unfortunate situations don't decide to let that limit them, beginning to transform themselves, though the outcomes of many of these changes don't take place during Parrish's stories. All the Roads That Lead from Home is a quick read but a dense one.

Four out of five stars

Many thanks to the author who provided me with a paperback copy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recent Read: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

Berlin is a fantastic city and one particular activity stood out above all the rest as my favorite. Berlin Underworlds Association is a nonprofit organization seeking to preserve what's under the surface in this city. In our case, we visited a World War II underground air raid bunker that has been preserved by the group, which conducts several tours a day there.

This tour takes place in a bunker attached to Gesundbrunnan underground station, which is the reason it is one of the few still in existence today (almost all of Berlin's 1,200 or so air raid shelters were destroyed after the war. By the way, Hitler had plans to build 3,000 across the city but the majority were never built).

Here are a few facts I learned (my brain was on overload by the end of this tour):

  • Air raids were only supposed to last less than an hour with the idea that more than one could take place on any given evening. Toward the end of the war, the British were bombing Berlin all night and the Americans bombed heavily all day. Because of this, Berliners carried their suitcases with them everywhere they went and wore layers of winter clothing, even in the summer, in case their homes were destroyed.
  • Room capacities were painted on the walls, and this capacity was determined by evaluating air quantity for short periods of time. Shelter capacity was most of the time double or triple the sum of the numbers painted on the walls.
  • Our tour guide said he's had two people on his tours in the past say they were born in that very shelter during an air raid.
  • We learned that in this city that was nearly leveled during World War II that debris is still being uncovered at construction sites and other places around Berlin. For example, a construction crew uncovered a live bomb in 1994 that blew up, killing three, seriously injuring eight, blowing off the entire side of the nearest building, and totaling every car parked on the block. Even today an average of one bomb is uncovered each month in Berlin.
  • Reflective paint on the walls was designed to make it light enough in the rooms to see or read a book if the power went out.
  • At the end of the war when the Russians marched into the city, some people remained in the air raid shelters for days out of fear and/or the fact that their homes had been destroyed. Unfortunately during the last days many people committed suicide in these shelters, often in bathroom stalls, the only place anyone had any privacy. 
  • Also when the city was invaded, Hitler thought their army would invade via the underground system, so he had them flooded with water. Instead of drowning members of the Russian army, 2,000 Germans who remained in these shelters were killed instead.
On this tour, the guide recommended a book called A Woman in Berlin written by an anonymous female journalist about the two months in 1945 while the city fell to the Russian army. The book was published in the 1950s in Europe (but not in Germany until later). The book has gotten further acclaim and circulation since the author's death in 2001, and her identity still has not been revealed.

I read the book over this past weekend and could not put it down. Rather than centering around the activity in an underground air raid shelter, the author writes about the inhabitants of her apartment building who band together, sell each other out, steal from each other and for each other, and protect each other as best they can during this terrible time.

The author describes one awful event after another: mass rape of women regardless of their age, having to house soldiers, being forced into labor duty and clearing debris, and on and on. No wonder people felt safer staying hidden in these bunkers. A Woman in Berlin is a powerful account of the atrocities of war, and was a great read.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Abdication by Juliet Nicholson

Abdication by Juliet Nicholson
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Published on: May 22, 2012
Page Count: 336
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Reading Format: Advanced Reading Copy for Kindle from Netgalley
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle edition


My Review:

In England in 1936, May Thomas and her brother Sam arrive from their native Barbados to live with a cousin they've never met and embark upon new adventures for each of them. May is soon hired to be personal secretary and driver for Sir Philip Blunt, whose friends and associates are of upper crust English society and royalty. At nearly the same time, Evangeline Nettlefold arrives in England from Baltimore to visit the Blunts and her childhood friend Wallis Simpson, a married woman who has captured the attention of King Edward VIII. As each woman finds her footing in England, each encounters people and events they would never forget, and each learns secrets she is expected never to tell. 

I had hoped this book would measure up to my expectations. I was hoping for Downton Abbey-meets-The King's Speech but this book didn't quite do that. While I kept on reading, anxious to see what Nicholson would do with her story, it never really quite came together for me. I was surprised that May could so easily be a part of both the world of a working domestic and the world of the socialites. I expected the line to be much clearer (as in Downton Abbey), and as a result, I was expecting that May's romantic relationship with a family friend of her employer would be frowned upon (but hoped that true love would prevail). I ended up liking Evangeline as a character but feeling sorry for her since she always appeared underfoot when with Wallis Simpson. The use of Evangeline as the readers' window into Simpson's relationship with the King could have been much more developed.

I found Nicholson to be a skilled writer. She is particularly adept at making her sentences paint beautiful pictures in her readers' minds, yet her plot and characterization fell far short of where I'd hoped it would.

Two out of five stars