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?

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Fall by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus is a short novel told in the first person by a narrator who is perhaps unreliable and absolutely unlikable. The novel is short and a quick read.  I chose to read it because it takes place in Amsterdam.  The narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is a Parisian living in Amsterdam, describing himself and his life and how he became a Judge-Penitent.

The narrator is unintentionally amusing.  When he says he is not intelligent, he does so in a way that belies his words, clearly implying that he thinks himself intellectually superior to others.  He contradicts himself many times, even when he says he has told a “totally insignificant story” it took him “a long time to forget” (53).  Naturally the reader immediately recognizes that a forgotten story, insignificant or not, is not one that could be shared with another. 

Camus does a brilliant job of creating a complicated who is not merely manipulating the listener (reader) so much as he is manipulating himself and his story.  The novel is not driven by any real action.  The narrator describes an incident that occurred in Paris, one to which he returns more than a few times, eventually revealing the implication of this one moment on his own perspective on humanity, the culpability that we all share.  Written after World War II, this is especially harsh, an accusation that all of humanity has in the role of what happened.  After all, while we might want to believe that if we could do it all over again we would nonetheless act no differently because all of us do the best we can in the moment. 

It is this that the narrator drives home, that our best falls short of what we think we are and he reflects the worst of ourselves back onto us with each turn of the short novel’s page.

Amsterdam by Russell Shorto

Amsterdam:  A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto is a look at the history of the city of Amsterdam with an emphasis not on the movers and shakers that created history so much as the ideas that undergirded the many changes that formed the society.  The author, himself, writes from a place of love; he was born in the United States but relocated to Amsterdam.  His love for the city, for its societal and political ideals permeates the pages.  In some ways, this also colors the results.  Slavery is only mentioned twice in spite of the fact that the WIC (West India Company) was directly responsible for the enslavement of over 600,000 Africans.  

Shorto does not, however, shy away from the role that the Dutch had in the genocide of the Jews.  Obviously, Anne Frank and her family hid in Amsterdam during the German occupation during World War II he states “75 percent of the Jews in France lived . . . only 27 percent of the Dutch Jews did” (267).  There is a subtle implication in this rhetorical choice, inverting the numbers like this. 

Although I found this book interesting, I didn’t find it necessarily compelling.  By focusing on the abstract of ideas—how consumerism, democracy, and liberalism all informed the events of Amsterdam and the ripple effect this city had on other countries, including, of course, the United States itself—the author lost me.  Abstract ideas are harder to follow and without faces and names to attach to, I felt somewhat adrift.  However, the city was not so clearly defined by people because it wasn’t itself driven by a monarchy.  For whatever reason, I was less interested in the merchant leaders than I am in the “into the manor born” rulers.  Nonetheless, I finished reading this book feeling like I had learned a lot more about Amsterdam and became more curious about the Dutch influence on my own hometown, New York City.  I will read Shorto’s book The Island at the Center of the World someday soon. 

But first, I have a trip to Amsterdam which is, after all, the reason I wanted to read this book. 
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