Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sarah's KeySarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the film based on Sarah's Key and was impressed enough to read the book. The film was well done with mostly minor changes to the plot, but the book was better. I enjoyed the extra detail in the print version.

The novel takes place in France. It bounces back and forth between a reporters story in 2002 (about the Vel' d'Hiv roundup) and the story of a twelve year old girl in 1942, who was arrested during the roundup, when French police forced Jewish families out of their homes, held them in horrible conditions in a sports arena, then shipped them east, to the death camps in Poland. Julia Jarmond, the reporter in 2002, is connected to Sarah Starzynski, the young girl in 1942, because the family of Julia's husband has lived in the apartment that was home for the young girl's family prior to the roundup and is about to leave it to Julia, her husband, and their daughter.

I love the way Tatiana de Rosnay mixed everyday problems such as family and work issues with the horrors of life as a Jew in France during the rule of the Vichy (the French government that collaborated with the German Nazis). I mention this specifically because I've seen other reviews that objected to mixing any story with something as serious as this issue. This book tells us about the French collaboration while keeping us involved with an interesting, character based story. Both Julia and Sarah's stories kept me turning the pages.

The picture de Rosnay paints of the French people is probably an accurate one. Some of the non-Jews were cruel while others were willing to risk their lives to help, but most were indifferent. If they found a good deal on a recently abandoned apartment, then tried not to think about the former residents. If they saw families being herded onto buses, they shook their heads and kept on walking.

Events in our history such as the Vel' d'Hiv roundup need to be remembered. We need to understand the capacity people have to act in selfish and hate filled ways, so that we can try to avoid repeating such horrible actions. In a little over a week there is going to be an election here in North Carolina. We're going to vote on an amendment to our state's constitution that, if passed, will prevent people living in non-traditional families from having the same rights as people in traditional families. It will affect real world issues such as inheritance and visiting rights when a love one is sick. Books like Sarah's Key can remind us how we're all human and we need to treat each other with respect.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Revelation by C.J. Sansom

RevelationRevelation by C. J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Revelation by C.J. Sansom is one of a series of novels centered around the character Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. It is a time of religious fanaticism with England divided into two camps: the reformers and the advocates of the old traditions “...a sort of Catholicism without the Pope...” A number of gruesome murders occur, one of which affects Shardlake's circle of friends causing him to be personally involved in the need to find the killer.

I haven't read any of the other books in this series, but this one stood on its own quite well. The sixteenth century setting is what makes this novel a great read. Much of the story takes place in Westminster Abbey. It was fascinating to step back into that scene. But the other areas were interesting as well. Learning about the inn in which the lawyers lived and worked was intriguing as was getting a picture of the home and office of Guy Malton, a doctor and good friend of Shardlake's. In addition to the setting, learning about the politics of the time was fascinating. The king was all powerful, so getting him to lean one way or the other in the battle between the religious sects was important to all the characters.

The other aspect of this novel that I appreciated was the way Sansom wove biblical thought and prophecy into his story. Rather than touching the issue of the truth or falsity of prophecy, he looked on extreme religious belief as motivation and rationalization behind the actions of most everyone in the story. Religion affects everyone's lives from the government officials, to the ex monks, to a young boy who is confined to Bedlam because he will not stop praying.

This book is a good choice for readers interested in mysteries and period pieces.

Steve Lindahl, author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure if I should comment on Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck because I read less than half of it. I opted to write about it anyway, but with full disclosure.

I'm not a fan of travelogues. I started reading this book because my book club chose it, but when I learned I wasn't going to be able to attend that month's meeting I switched to another book. My impression of the book is that it is well written, but not very profound. One of the reviews I read said that Steinbeck stayed in hotels while traveling and not in his camper/van as he claimed. I don't know if this is true, but speaking as a fan of fiction I don't suppose it matters. He wrote of his impressions of America in 1962. The book is dated, of course, but that makes it interesting. There are differences between people who lived fifty years ago and people who live today, but those seem to be specific differences rather than core differences. We still generalize and jump to conclusions. Today we're more accepting of African-Americans, but less of Mexicans. The type of bureaucracy that kept Steinbeck from crossing the Canadian border without the proper paperwork for his dog was similar to the story of a friend of mine who was recently forced to toss a tube of sunblock before entering a federal building in Washington DC.

The discussions Steinbeck had with people along the way were the part of this book that I liked the most. The people he encountered were jealous of his decision to travel. They were caught up in their day to day lives and wanted something different. I went to high school in New Jersey, in a school that was next to the Garden State Parkway. I used to look out the classroom windows and be jealous of the people driving by. I imagine some of those people in the cars looked up at our school and were jealous of us students. People always want to break out of routine. It doesn't matter if the routine is staying in one place or if it is traveling.

I was surprised by how much Steinbeck drank. I suppose the prevalence of alcohol may be a difference in the current culture from the culture of the sixties. People still drink today, of course, but back then everyone seemed to have a wet bar in their house and a cocktail hour before dinner. Steinbeck would offer the people he met a drink in his trailer, so I suppose the alcohol was a way to experience more rather than a blurring of what he saw. Also, it seemed that “hard-drinking” was a description he would have used with pride when describing about himself.

This is a good read for anyone interested in twentieth century America or in travelogues in general.

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