Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: The Little Stranger

I've had Sarah Waters on my radar for awhile, so I picked up The Little Stranger on the to-be-shelved stacks at the library. So...this book actually gave me shivers. I was even scared when I awoke in the middle of the night and had to walk down our hallway to the bathroom. C-r-e-e-p-y!

The Little Stranger is a ghost story, although I didn't really know this when I began reading it. That's probably good, because I wouldn't normally willingly pick up a gothic ghost story novel! The story centers on Dr. Faraday and his obsession with Hundreds Hall, where his mother was once a servant, and its strange inhabitants, the Ayres family. Hundreds Hall is a decaying house, once the center of a great estate, where strange things begin to happen. The brother goes crazy, the mother unhinged, and Faraday and the sister, Caroline, engage in a strange dance. Faraday is insistent that the family keep Hundreds Hall intact, in spite of its obvious haunting.

This reminded me somewhat of Diana Satterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. And although I liked Satterfield's novel much better, this one was extremely engaging, providing just enough shivers, excellent writing, and memorable characters. I definitely recommend this and will keep Sarah Waters on my TBR radar.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Review: Away

I picked up this book by Amy Bloom on the to-be-shelved stacks at the library solely because of the book cover. Yes, I know the adage. In this case, I nearly tossed the book aside after the first 50 pages. It was so disturbing.

But I kept reading, and I'm glad I did. This isn't a book I'll throw at my book club and demand they read it. They don't, as a whole, like wading through tragic, depressing novels to get to the happy ending.

And Away is disturbing, depressing, and tragic. Lillian is a Russian Jew who witnessed the slaughter of her entire family, lost her three-year-old daughter, and then made her way to America alone in the 1920s. She does what she can to survive, including becoming the mistress of a Yiddish theatre director and his actor son. When a cousin arrives from Russia and informs Lillian that her daughter, Sophie, is actually alive, Lillian is determined to head to Siberia to find her.

Lillian is a focused, determined young mother on a quest, and she'll do anything to find her daughter. Traveling by train, boat, horse, and foot from New York City, she ultimately ends up traveling alone in the Alaskan wilderness, hoping to cross into Siberia. Along the way she meets an array of people, from exceptionally kind to exceptionally perverse.

One of my very favorite parts of the novel—and I absolutely loved this—is that Amy Bloom ties up all the loose ends of the cast of characters when they step out of the story. When Lillian leaves the director and his son back in New York, Bloom tells the reader what happens to them. When she parts ways with the prostitute in Seattle, Bloom follows through, in just a few paragraphs, with the rest of the prostitute's life. I loved that.

Away is loosely based on Lillian Alling, a woman who attempted to walk from New York City to Russia in 1927. The book is sexually explicit, disturbing, and terribly tragic—but at the end, I am glad that I continued reading. Without Bloom's device of following the futures of the characters, I'm not sure I would have been so satisfied. But I absolutely love closure, and she does it so very well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: Saving Cee-Cee Honeycutt

In Beth Hoffma's debut novel, Cee-Cee Honeycutt spends her first 12 years in cold Ohio with an unstable, unhappy, and ultimately crazy mother who lives completely in the past, reliving her days as the Vidalia Queen in Savannah. Cee-Cee, a social outcast, is known in the small town as the crazy lady's daughter. Her father rarely makes an appearance, and when he does, her mother is even more miserable.

When her mother is killed in a car accident, Cee-Cee's great-aunt Tootie rescues her, much to the relief of Cee-Cee's cold and detached father. Cee-Cee is introduced to Savannah, Georgia, a world that is completely different from the only one she has ever known. A typical cast of quirky southern chick lit characters become Cee-Cee's circle of friends: the black housekeeper, the exotic neighbor, the rich snob, and, of course, Aunt Tootie.

I liked this book. It has moments of fluff and predictability, but I actually really loved Cee-Cee, Aunt Tootie, and Oletta, the housekeeper. The stereotypical neighbors were fine for a little diversion and levity, but the saving of Cee-Cee story was really sweet and well done. This is one of those perfect reads for between heavier (or depressing, as my book club friends insist) novels.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: Shadows Walking

When I received Shadows Walking in the mail to review, I knew immediately that this is one that my Dad would be much more qualified to review. My father is a voracious reader and a historian. And as a World War II veteran, my father was there—he has seen those shadows walking. He was extremely moved by Shadows Walking, read it thoroughly once and skimmed it another time. And here is what he has to say:

"...out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow... " Macbeth

When the world was still young and bright and innocent, two twelve-year-old boys solemnly performed the blood brother ritual. Johann pricked Philip’s finger, Philip cut Johan’s; they mixed their blood and swore eternal friendship. Johann is gentile, Philip Jewish. In 1914, their schooling complete, Johann, Philip and all their school class enlist in the Wehrmacht and go off to World War I.

Forty years later, Germany is a shambles. Millions upon millions of Germans are dead, Russians in their millions; Frenchmen, Britons, Italians, even Americans. Six million Jews have been murdered; like so many others, Philip is dead at Auschwitz.

In Nuremburg’s Palace of Justice, Johann is a janitor watching the trials of The Doctors—the German physicians who led the medical atrocities of the Nazis in the name of “science." What happened to those golden days before WW1? How did the horrors of Hitler’s Nazism capture the German nation? How could the Holocaust erupt and then overcome Deutschland?

Historian Douglas Skopp uses Johann Brenner, the gentile boy from Bavaria to approach these questions. How did Hitler’s Nazism capture Germany? How did Hitler’s Nazism capture Johann Brenner? How did the Holocaust engulf the Jews of all Europe? Ask Johann Brenner how he contributed to Holocaust!

Perhaps for Johann Brenner, it began in Munich in 1923. Waiting to have a beer with Philip, Johann chances on a street preacher, haranguing a little crowd of ragged veterans. The haranger is a short, nondescript little man, sporting a ridiculous mustache and a shrill, penetrating voice. But this little man speaks eloquently of the times— hard times, and all the fault of die Juden!
    —Why did we lost the war? Die Juden!
    —Why Versailles? Die Juden!
    —Who keeps Germany from her destiny? Die Juden! Die Juden! Juden! Die Juden!

    Germany was a fertile soil in 1923, a soil waiting to be planted with all the hatred, the venom that Adolph Hitler could spew. But Hitler was persuasive, if illogical – Johann (and Germany) are seduced. Hitler’s theme of der Volk and “blood purity” of course formed the basic rationale for the removals – removals of Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and mentally ill and handicapped, and, later, of Poles and Russians and other inferiors.

    Hitler is not the only seducer. For Johann, a "great” physician, Brandt, reinforces Johann’s disquiet and his growing contempt for Jews and other undesirables. Brandt is part of the driving force that leads to Holocaust.

    Johann is not corrupted in one fell swoop; his corruption is gradual, so gradual that he cannot see his entrapment. He participates in compulsory sterilization procedures, framed in the concept of eugenics and for the good of the Volk. Eventually we find Johann working in Auschwitz, carrying out medical “research.” His particular specialty was castrations – mass castrations to produce docile slaves who could not reproduce and so spoil the sacred blood of the Volk.

    We pity Johann as he carries out his assault on humanity, we pity him because he is not able to see the depth of evil to which he is contributing. Only when his boyhood friend, his blood brother Philip the Jew arrives at Auschwitz via cattle car does Johann begin to recognize his own evil.

    Johann finds shadows walking in Munich – men with no present, no future. Men from the trenches, men who will always be soldiers, old soldiers, shadows walking in the past.

    And the question for the reader lurks at the end: what evil lies in all of us just below the surface?

    Many thanks to my Dad, Dr. James Cummins, for taking the time to read and thoughtfully review Shadows Walking. The book is on a virtual tour for the month of November. Be sure to visit these other blogs for more reviews!

    Monday, November 7th
    Review at Impressions in Ink

    Monday, November 14th
    Review at A Bookish Affair

    Thursday, November 17th
    Review at The Book Garden

    Monday, November 21st
    Author Interview at A Bookish Affair

    Thursday, November 24th
    Review at Confessions of a Book Hoarder

    Monday, November 28th
    Author Guest Post at Confessions of a Book Hoarder