Friday, July 6, 2018

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I recommend so many books to my granddaughter that I try to make a point of reading books she recommends to me, especially when she goes to the trouble of letting me borrow her copy.  Which is what happened recently.  A couple of weeks earlier, we had gone to her school’s book sale and I urged her to choose more books than she had already selected.  One of them was The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. We had given her A Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and her uncle had given her The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis.  This middle grades novel looked like it would be a good fit with the books we’d already been recommending to her.

She devoured Bradley’s novel.  The story is told through Ada’s eyes and right away we know that Ada and her younger brother Jamie live in abnormal circumstances.  Forget that there is the threat of war on the immediate horizon, Ada doesn’t know how old she is and is not allowed to leave her London flat.  When the evacuation of children begins, Ada sees an opportunity she could never have anticipated and manages to get herself and her brother sent to the countryside where they are fostered by a reluctant recluse, Susan Smith. 

Bibi warned me that the story is sad at first so I was not surprised by the brutality of Ada’s life at the start of the book. What did surprise me is that Bradley does not back away from how years of neglect and abuse would affect Ada.  She is not a pleasant person but manages to be utterly sympathetic because the reader understands where her anger is coming from and, as a result, has more patience for her. All of the main characters, in fact, are flawed and written well.  Although not overtly stated, it’s easy to see why Susan Smith is unhappy by reading between the lines.  Jamie, more indulged than Ada, is a bit of a brat at times but fiercely protective of his sister.  All of these elements add to the quality of the story and make me eager to read the sequel, The War I Finally Won. 

And yes, my granddaughter is eager to read the sequel as well.  I’m patting myself on the back for this one. Glad I pushed my granddaughter and proud she shared this novel with me.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Legends of the Falls is one of those movies that’s pretty and well act4ed but the point of which thoroughly eludes me.  Unless, that is, the point of the movie is to be pretty and pointless in which case they nailed it!  I even watched it a second time, assuming the only reason I thought it was pointless is because I missed something essential that would wrap it all up in a nice neat bow of meaning.

It didn’t.

Which is why I recently decided to borrow the book from the public library.  I figured maybe this was one of those movies where the book is not only better than the movie but actually makes sense where the movie doesn’t.

I opened it and started reading.  Believe it or not, I was even more confused by what I was reading.  How was this even possible?  Jim Harrison’s writing was accessible, a straight-forward narrative about a man who has an affair with his friend’s wife.  But none of this made sense because it takes place in Mexico and there aren’t three brothers in the story. There is one allusion to the man’s older brother marrying his ex-wife so obviously there is a connection between this and the movie, right? 

I was so damned confused.  Which is why I went online and discovered this website where the book and movie are discussed; and I immediately understood why I was so damned confused.  Nowhere on the cover of the edition of the book I was reading does it mention that it is a collection of three novellas which have nothing to do with one another except that they are written by the same author!!!

I finished the first of the three novellas, Revenge, fascinated even though I was confused.  I wanted to know where the story was heading and how it would end.

The second story, The Man Who Gave Up His Name, would have possibly made me realize that there is no connection between the stories if I hadn’t already known.  It begins in the mid-twentieth century and focuses on one man’s post-divorce experience.  I didn’t really care about the protagonist and found him to be enigmatic in spite of the fact that the story is told through his point-of-view.  If the man’s experiences were themselves banal it also bordered on bathos, leaving me underwhelmed. In many ways, it was not unlike the movie—the quality of the writing is strong (the craftsmanship) but the story left me disenchanted (the main character).

(Because of the title, I would have still presumed it was somehow connected to the third and final novella which, if you’ve seen the movie, probably makes some sense.)

Last but not least, we have Legends of the Fall, the novella upon which the movie is based which, as we all should now understand, had nothing to do with the previous two stories (and shame on the publishers for not making that very clear on the cover of the book).  The story begins with three brothers leaving their Montana home to join the Canadian army, enlisting before America joined the “war to end all wars.”  The movie doesn’t stray far from the book.  It condenses in places, fusing characters or dropping them altogether.  Mostly, like the movie, the book is told from the point-of-view of One Stab, a native American who lives with and works for the Ludlow family around which most of the drama revolves.

What the film loses is the evident psychosis that runs through two of the characters, Tristan in particular.  In the movie, he seems to be a man of extremes, passionate in all that he does.  In the novella, it is clear he is an outsider in his own family, narcissistic and undisciplined becoming unhinged and pulling himself together long enough to hurt those who love him most before disappearing into his selfishness again.

Yep. I am not a fan of the character. 

I read the novella, nonetheless, and I feel like I have a better appreciation for what the movie was trying to do but it still falls flat for me. Visually pretty, it will remain unsubstantial, peopled with two dimensional characters that are well-acted but hindered by a script that was likely banking on the big names behind it more than anything else. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I remember reading Watership Down by Richard Adams when I was a teenager.   Years later an animated movie of the book was released. I was not impressed with the movie but knew I had loved the book, recommended it to everyone, and considered reading more by the author (although I never did).  Recently I picked up a copy of the book at the local public library book sale.  I initially grabbed it for my granddaughter but hesitated giving it to her.  I figured I’d reread it before I gave it to her and worried that my fond memories would be disappointed upon revisiting a world that had stuck with me for several decades. 

I shouldn’t have hesitated even an instant.  Upon reading the book again, I was sucked into the marvelous world Adams created and, unless you hate bunnies (sorry Anya), you may be surprised to find yourself genuinely caring about this small band of rabbits that seek to find a new home.  This journey is incidentally led by Hazel who listens to a warning from his younger brother Fiver.  They are joined by a few other rabbits from their warren and later joined by others. 

Along the way they encounter other rabbits, some more domesticated than others, and face challenges from their numerous enemies.  Hazel, as the reluctant hero of the novel, is compassionate and intelligent, earning the admiration of those around him.  Sprinkled throughout the novel are stories from the mythology of lupines is told, drawing on creation mythology and the long tradition of the Trickster Rabbit.  The entire novel reads like an epic, reminiscent of Homer’s The Odyssey.  Find it hard to believe a book about bunnies can aspire to such grandeur?  Believe me, it works.

It works well enough that I want to see if my library has a copy of Tales from Watership Down.  I wasn’t aware of a second book and I want to live in this world just a little bit longer, if I can. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Time-Traveling Fashionista by Bianca Turetsky

Before I dig into this review, I want to give a bit of backstory.  I was out shopping for school supplies with my daughter-in-law when I saw this book in the bargain bin at a bookstore.  I loved the cover and the title was intriguing because I felt it would be something my granddaughter would enjoy.  I grabbed the book and brought it home where I discovered it was the second in a series.  Uh oh!  And my public library didn’t have the first book.  Ugh!  So I did something I typically never ever do.  I read the second book first.  Which is why, rather than write one review per book I’m writing one review for all three books in the series because why not.

The Time-Traveling Fashionista series by Bianca Turetsky begins with The Time-Traveling Fashionista and On Board The Titanic offers an interesting premise:  What if a vintage article of clothing could carry you into the past?  This is precisely what happens to vintage clothing aficionado Louise Lambert.  When she receives an invitation to a pop-up clothing boutique that specializes in vintage clothes, how can she possibly resist?  She can’t.  Fortunately, Louise can afford to buy vintage clothing.  She lives in a nice home, in a nice neighborhood where she goes to a nice school.   Her mother, who cannot cook, is happily married to her father, who obviously makes a good living that supports their upper middle class life.

In other words, all is right in Louise’s world.  That is, until she tries on a dress and passes out only to awaken as another person.  The first time, she ends up becoming an actress who happens to be on the Titanic.  What Louise knows about the ship is limited to the movie but she doesn’t immediately recognize where she is and, for a while anyway, enjoys the fun of dressing up in glamorous clothes and living a luxurious lifestyle. 

This marvelous happenstance does come with some limitations, however.  Iceberg aside, Louise quickly learns that her reflection reveals her reality.  In other words, although everyone sees her as the actress she has embodied, if they were to see her in a mirror or other reflective surface, they would see Louise.  For this reason, she must avoid her own reflection when anyone else is around. 

This becomes more difficult for her to accomplish in the second novel where she finds herself in the court of Marie Antoinette at Versailles.  Hall of Mirrors anyone?  Louise is also blissfully ignorant of her French history so isn’t immediately alarmed by where and when she is.  She does make an interesting discovery while in France and another when she returns home. 

Which leads to her third and final journey to ancient Egypt by way of the movie set for the film Cleopatra.  I expected some of the loose threads that were developed in the previous couple of books, and one is cleared up by the book’s end.  But more threads are created and a few are not quite tied up. 

When I finished the third book, I fully expected there would be at least one more book.

There isn’t.  The third book was released 4 years ago and it doesn’t look like there is another being published.  For all I know, there weren’t even plans to write a fourth.  So the loose threads are, I suppose, only going to be tied up by imaginative readers.

And this is a shame.  These novels are fun, a frivolous distraction, complete with lovely illustrations that are reminiscent of fashion advertisements in old newspapers from the 1970s. The drawings by Sandra Suy are a perfect complement to the story and each section of the novels is preceded by a quote. One from Seneca is a rather loose interpretation of its meaning but the quotes from Coco Chanel are more problematic.  Yes, she was influential in the fashion world but, in light of her Nazi affiliations, I wish another designer’s words had been featured.  
Still, there’s no denying that I enjoyed reading these books and am certain my granddaughter will enjoy them, probably more than I did.  I have never been enamored of labels.  Fashion designers can make some amazing things but I never looked to invest in something just because someone else’s name is on it.  (I lean towards what looks good on me, not what the latest fad might be.  And always have.)

It’s unfortunate that the author decided not to write more books or the publisher decided to stop publishing the series.  I could imagine several moments in history.  The Boxer Rebellion in China.  The Spanish Inquisition.  The court of Henry VIII.  Chicago in the 1920s.  So many opportunities to carry Louise’s  story forward.  But her story ends abruptly and unfinished, loose threads and all.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A View from Saturday by E L Konigsburg

Ever since she finished the Harry Potter books, I’ve been trying to get my granddaughter to read another book or series of books along with me.  I’ve even gone so far as to buy myself a copy of a book I bought for her.  Although she reads for at least half an hour every night, reading the same book with her is easier said than done.

Case in point:  As part of the Target program in her school, she is reading The View from Saturday by E L Konigsburg.  I was so excited by this because, when I was her age, I read and loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by the same author. 

There are five characters that dominate the story:  Mrs Eva Olinski, a middle school teacher, and four of her students—Noah Gershom, Nadia Diamondstein, Ethan Potter, and Julian Singh.  The novel alternates between third person to first person limited as each of the main characters has an opportunity to tell a part of their own story which also moves the story in and out of the present.  How the children connect with one another is gradually revealed and how they know the answers to the academic questions is gradually told in ripples that become larger with each chapter.  (Somewhat like the narrative style of Slumdog Millionaire, without the horrible abuse and such.  This is a children’s book, after all!)

I especially like how each character’s hidden biases are revealed and overcome.  I was disappointed that Julian’s character was less layered than any of the others, almost causing him to fall into the “magical black person” trope. (Albeit, he’s Indian so brown person I suppose would be more appropriate.)

Overall, I enjoyed this book very much.  The way the story is told is interesting and I expect that my granddaughter will enjoy it very much. Unfortunately, she hadn’t even started it by the time I had finished it.  Oops.  Well, we’ll simply have to try again with some other book. A for effort, yes?

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