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Category Archives: book review

Journey into the Whirlwind

The best book, definitely the best memoir, that I’ve read in years, The Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg chronicles her experience of imprisonment in USSR during the Stalin era. Since she saw no evidence against her colleague, Ginzburg refused to wrongly condemn him as a Trotskyite. Thus she was imprisoned for over a decade.

A poet and writer, Ginzburg writes of how she was torn from her husband and two young children and imprisoned in 1937 for over a decade. Ginzburg was a faithful Communist, but that didn’t matter. Stalin’s henchmen would imprison millions, many of whom agreed with him.  

I was astonished by Ginzburg’s bravery. She stood her ground when pressured with the threat of torture unless she signed documents that falsely charged her with terrorism and other crimes. Her refusal saved her life since admitting to those crimes would allow the Soviet government to execute her. Even when interrogated in marathon sessions, Ginzburg stuck to her principles. 

To communicate, Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners ingeniously devised codes consisting of taps on the walls and songs. This was how they shared news of the outside and changes in the  prison. Prisoners were allowed to write home, but their letters were censored. Ginzburg eventually developed a code with her mother so rather than using her own name or her family members’ names, using fictitious names of imaginary children. So rather than asking about her husband, she’d make up a little boy’s name and ask if he’s back from camp to find out if her husband had been released from prison. The codes were quite clever and worked. 

Conditions in the prison, train to the work camp and work camp were horrific and Ginzburg described them vividly, but the dignity and bravery she showed throughout the book, elevated her writing so that I could keep reading. She also provided astute observations about the people she was imprisoned with. Some retained their haughty airs, while others banded together and sacrificed to help a sick woman who needed food or who needed information on how the system worked. 

This was a period that knew about at a textbook level of generalities and read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I now want to reread. Ginzburg’s book made this chapter of history crystal clear. There is a 2009 movie but I doubt I could watch it. If the torture and injustice are accurately depicted, it’s probably too much for me and if they aren’t I’d be upset by the cherry-coating.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2021 in book review, memoir, non-fiction

 

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Good Morning Zoom

Is this a parody or a clever gimmick intended for children? I wanted more satire. This disappointed. There are a lot of riffs on the Good Night Moon book, which is something of a literary lullaby. Good Morning Zoom tries to explain the Lockdown culture. I think something else could do that better.

I saw this beside the cash register at my local book store. It’s intended as an impulse buy. Try to resist as I did.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2021 in book review, humor

 

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Trinity

A graphic history of the first atomic bomb, Trinity shows the history of development of The Bomb from the Curie’s experimentation with  radioactivity to the Manhattan Project to the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a concise book with lots of science, math and history. I was surprised that it would offer so much detail on the scientists’ work and personal history.

I enjoyed this quick, educational read. It’s good for ages 12 and up.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2021 in book review

 

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The Snow Queen

snow queen

After watching the Hillsdale College Classic Children’s Literature lesson on The Snow Queen, I had to read the story for myself. I got a version of this Hans Christian Anderson story, which was illustrated by Yana Sedova. The pictures were sumptuous with lots of icy blues to capture the world of the story.

After watching the lecture, I noticed so many facets of this tale and its theme of reason vs. imagination (a false dichotomy if ever there was one). I don’t remember ever reading The Snow Queen though I had a vague familiarity with its plot. I liked it’s depiction of friendship and loyalty as well as its emphasis on friendship.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2020 in book review, Children's Lit, fiction

 

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Hate That Cat

hate cat

Sharon Creech’s Hate that Cat is a super quick read, perfect if you have a book report due tomorrow and hadn’t started a book. Though Creech’s Walk Two Moons is among my favorite novels for children, Hate that Cat didn’t grab me.

Evidently, Hate that Cat is the second book in a series. The hero writes letters to his favorite teacher and shares all his thoughts about poetry, cats, dogs, and writing with the teacher. The book introduces young readers to poets like William Carlos Williams and Edgar Allen Poe. The most interesting facet of the book was that the narrator’s mother is deaf and he can sign ASL.

For a mature reader, there isn’t much in the theme that isn’t well worn ground. The book doesn’t delight readers of all ages, which is a hallmark of the best of children’s literature. The narrator seemed like a cookie cutter Creech hero, but one who shares little of his personality or background.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2020 in book review, Children's Lit, fiction

 

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Mr. Sammler’s Planet

sammler's planet

I started Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet February 6. Bellow’s one of my favorite writers and I was looking forward to a story I hadn’t read. I picked it up and put it down again after again. Often weeks went by when I didn’t pick it up.

Mr. Sammler survived the Holocaust and went on to become a fairly successful professor in New York. The novel’s a slice of life as he runs across a wide array of relatives and associates who aggravate him. He’s perceptive and erudite. The main plot involves him having to track down a colleague’s manuscript and he has to go from one person to the next and they all have messy lives. He muses a lot about all these people, whom he analyzes ad nauseam.

After months of trying to get into this book, I’ve given up. While I admit that Bellow always has good style, but I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters and their plight didn’t grab me. As I was half way through the book, I didn’t think it was worth spending more time on so I’ve abounded it.

If you want to try Saul Bellow, start with The Adventures of Augie March. That’s quite a ride.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in book review, fiction, Nobel Prize

 

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Cash Boy

frank-fowler-the-cash-boy

To catch up on my Good Reads reading challenge, I figured an Horatio Alger book was just the ticket. I got Frank Fowler: Cash Boy in a couple days. Frank Fowler, an orphan decides to go to the big city to get a job. He leaves his step-sister, who he thought was his biological sister. On her deathbed his mother admitted that Frank was adopted, that he was adopted under mysterious circumstances. Such is the storyline of a Horatio Alger book. Frank’s pal’s family agrees to take in his sister to keep her from the Poor House.

Though he comes across the swindlers common in these books, it’s not till Frank is hired to read to a wealthy man each evening that he meets his nemeses, the housekeeper and the man’s nephew. They fear Frank will worm his way into the old man’s heart. They plot to get Frank out of the house so that they can get the lion’s share of the old man’s will.

Although Alger’s books follow a formula, I don’t tire of his spunky, honest, courageous boys living in tough times when there were many children who had to take on adult responsibilities. It’s a quick, fun read.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2020 in book review, Children's Lit, fiction

 

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The Starlet and the Spy

starlet spy

It’s 1954 and outcast Alice Kim works as a translator for the US Army. She struggles to keep on keeping on after the horrors of war and the emotional wounds from her earlier romantic affairs. Alice gets chosen to translate for Marilyn Monroe who’s coming to Korea to entertain the troops, who remain.

Nervous, emotional and guilt-ridden, Alice feels alienated. A young woman, whose past haunts her must deal with seeing her past lovers and tries to track down an orphan she promised to care for.

While the story’s full of angst, I felt it lacked authenticity, which is surprising since the author researched war diaries and other primary sources. I felt there was too little Marilyn Monroe in the book and thought those chapters were based on stereotypes. I think Monroe was in the story to make it marketable.

The love triangle and the emotional crash that ensued when the married lover caught her in bed with her other lover didn’t endear Alice to me. She lacked the insight to figure out her own responsibility even though all the dots where there. I didn’t find the spy work compelling either.

I prefer Lisa See’s, Jung Chang’s and Winston Graham’s historical fiction. Ji-Min Lee’s The Starlet and the Spy is not a novel you must read.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2020 in book review, fiction, World Lit

 

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Death on the Nile

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This coming week my mystery book club was going to meet to discuss Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I listened to the audio book and watched the movie. The audio book’s narrator David Suchet was terrific and brought the story to life.

While on a vacation in Egypt Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who’s forever telling people he isn’t French, gets on board a boat and finds his fellow travelers keep getting bumped off. There’s a love triangle consisting of Linnet, a wealthy heiress, Jacqueline her good friend and her Simon new husband, who was in love with the friend. There’s a German doctor, a rich, imperious woman and the young companion who resents her boss. The heiress’ trustee, her London lawyer her maid, and the maid’s married lover round out the cast.

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One eerie element to the story is that Jacqueline’s stalking Linnet. Everywhere they go Jacqueline’s there. Ever jumpy, things get worse when Linette is found dead. Poirot soon suspects everyone. Then the bodies start to pile up. The maid is found dead and then a third murder follows. Poirot finds almost everyone has a motive.

With Peter Ustinov, Mia Farrow, David Niven, Angela Lansberry, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Olivia Hussey, the film is chock full of stars. Alas, I found the story in both formats lacking. I wasn’t pulled in to the story as Poirot didn’t use much hard evidence. It seemed that his main talent was supposition and conjecture to find possible motives. He doesn’t draw me in the way Sherlock Holmes does. I was left craving a better plot and more complex characters. I felt Christie just took the idea of Murder on the Orient Express and just made a few small changes.

 

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2020 in book review, fiction, mystery

 

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The Small Bachelor

smallbachelor

While P.G. Wodehouse’s The Small Bachelor doesn’t feature Jeeves or Bertie Wooster, it contains the main features readers enjoy in his writing — charming wit and wordplay, a supercilious butler, a bumbling young man, a bit of romance and a bothersome aunt-like character.

The story starts:

On the roof of the Sheridan Apartment House, near Washington Square, New York, is a “small bachelor apartment, penthouse style”, and the small bachelor who owns it is amateur artist George Finch, who is rich due to an inheritance. He falls in love with Molly Waddington at first sight, but is too shy to approach her until he retrieves her dog. George’s authoritative friend J. Hamilton Beamish, author of self-help books, is helping mild-mannered policeman Garroway become a poet. Garroway recognizes George’s valet, Frederick Mullett, an ex-convict who served time for burglary, though Mullett is now reformed. Mullett is engaged to former pickpocket Fanny Welch, who is somewhat less reformed.

George is invited into Molly’s home by her father, Sigsbee H. Waddington; Mr. Waddington, who has been influenced by Western films and novels, longs to go out West and takes a liking to George, since George is from East Gilead, Idaho. Though once wealthy, Mr. Waddington cannot afford to go out West because he is now financially dependent on his rich wife, Molly’s step-mother, socially ambitious Mrs. Waddington. She dislikes George, believing his morals are suspect because he lives in an unconventional artist neighborhood, and wants Molly to marry the tall and handsome Lord Hunstanton. However, Molly finds Lord Hunstanton stiff and loves George. Hamilton Beamish gets help for George from Madame Eulalie, Mrs. Waddington’s palmist and fortune teller, who tells Mrs. Waddington that disaster will strike if Molly marries Hunstanton. Beamish also falls in love with Madame Eulalie. Molly gets engaged to George, though Mrs. Waddington still dislikes him.

The Small Bachelor Plot. Wikipedia.org Retrieved on February 23, 2020.

Of course, more hijinks ensue in this fast-paced story.

I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version narrated by my favorite Jonathon Cecil, who crafts the best characters with his voices.

The story was a joy to listen to and made me laugh out loud. Wodehouse delivers everything I’ve come to expect in terms of a fun story.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2020 in book review, British Lit, fiction, humor

 

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