Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky

I really liked the title of this book.  I'll fully admit that's what drew me to the book.  Just sounds so intense and passionate.  Fire in the Blood.

This is considered one of the unfinished works of Irene Nemirovsky.  Difficult to really judge the work based on the idea that it was her rough draft.  This was found years after her death at a concentration camp during WWII. 

Unlike Suite Francaise, this is not at all about the war.  This is about some people living in the country.  The story is almost soap opera-ish, with their dramas involving affairs and lies and loves and such.  The narrator is a man who lived a full life, traveled around the world -- he claims he had a "fire in the blood" that kept him from remaining at home.  Now he's old and observing the lives of his cousins and their adult children.

There's a very dramatic twist at the end, long buried secrets revealed that's fairly shocking to all involved.  I can't elaborate too much without giving the story away.

It's a somewhat interesting story, a very quick read.  It's not great though.  As I said, I believe this was the author's rough draft, so the story wasn't fully developed.  I'm looking forward to reading some of the author's finished work that was published during her lifetime to see if there is a significant difference in the writing.

Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

I've never seen the movie based on this book.  I've heard it's very different from the book.  Since finishing the book, I've recorded it, and it's saved on the Tivo, but I've yet to watch it.

I was intrigued by the story of a person spending so much of his life in airplanes and airports.  I've gone through phases of my life in which every weekend was spent in and out of an airport.  I've become familiar with several different airlines.  A few routes I flew so often, the flight crew began to recognize me.

I almost didn't read this book because the reviews on Goodreads were so negative.  But I decided to give it a try and I'm so glad I did.

I really liked this book.  It's so well written, reads very quickly.  It's funny and interesting.  Because I've spent so much time on planes, I felt I could relate to a lot of it.  Those awkward conversations with strangers, the way the two of you exchange information that you don't even tell your closest acquaintances because here on the plane you have the safety of knowing you'll probably never see this person again.  This book brought back so many memories of encounters on planes.  The fast, fleeting friendships that usually end once we touch the ground.

There's also the main characters conflict with his job.  Again I felt I could on some level relate to this. For years - nine years to be exact - I had one of those jobs that no one really understood.  Truth is, I wasn't even certain as to what I did -- international news distribution - but whatever anyone assumed it was, it probably wasn't.  Selling a product that doesn't really exist, because it's just an idea, and its success depends on convincing other people that the service exists even though it's just an idea.  None of that makes sense,does it?  It's not supposed to.

But this character, he's not just a weekend traveller, as I was.  He travels all the time.  At this point, he doesn't even have a home.  He's got his things in storage somewhere.  He's let his place go, let his car go.  He rents, he stays in hotels.  He's liquidated his life.

He's trying to get one million miles before his boss finds out he's quit his job.  He says he wants to work from home.  He's trying to write a book, trying to get a job with another company that is selling an idea or a service that isn't quite defined.  He's moving from place to place, in a mad rush to accomplish his goals and also save his sister's wedding and keep his family happy.  But all this travel, all this moving from city to city, it's starting to wear him down and his past is beginning to catch up with him.

There are hints throughout the story that something is amiss, something a little more jarring than mere confusion over extensive air travel.  But even with the warnings, the last few pages threw me.   I'm not sure I understood what happened.  I sort of do, but I'm not certain I "got it."  I didn't like the ending, didn't like it at all.  Or maybe I just felt so connected to the character after sharing his hectic journey that I wasn't ready to let go.  I especially didn't like the way I had to let go.  Didn't like what I was reading.  I wanted to keep going, and I wanted to find out more.

Overall though, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time traveling through airports and airplanes.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hardball by Sara Paretsky

Hardball is the first VI Warshawski book I've read.  I believe it may be the 13th or 15th in the series.  Based on this book, I don't feel especially compelled to read the other books in the series.

This book never really grabbed me, or put me in a position where I just couldn't put it down.  In fact, about mid-way through, I considered not even finishing the book because I didn't care what happened next.

VI is a private detective, and she's trying to find someone who disappeared thirty years or forty years earlier.  But as soon as she begins the investigation, people start coming after her.  Then you find out that her cousin is involved and her uncle and her dad, and it all seems a bit too coincidental and absurd.  There's lots of action -- bad guys attacking her and fires and break-ins, but none of it feels very natural.  As I read it, I found myself thinking, over and over again that it all seems a bit ridiculous. 

I tend to prefer British mysteries, which involve a lot more brain power to solve the crime, less jumping out of windows and hiding in cases for musical instruments and frequent stays in hospitals.

Despite all that action, it all seemed a bit boring, or rather a lot boring.  I didn't care about the characters very much.  None of them -- except for the neighbor downstairs -- seemed like people I would ever want to meet or be around.  So it didn't matter to me if they got hurt, or lost or went missing forever.
Maybe if I'd read the other books in the series, I would care more.  But there are so many other books I'd rather read, going to stay away from these in the future.

finished reading:  August 29, 2010

Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

I love Paris and try to learn as much as I can about the city.  My summer visits to Paris also have increased my interest in World War II.  In the U.S., reading about that time period, it all seems very distant and remote.  But in Paris and in much of Europe, the war happened right there.  It was my love of Paris and my interest in WWII that drew me to this book.

The summary I read of Julie Orringer's Invisible Bridge described the book as a love story between a young, Jewish Hungarian college student and an older ballerina in Paris, on the eve of war.  I imagined it to be a passionate love story with a gorgeous, tragic Paris setting. 

It is a love story, but not exactly what I expected.  It's much more than a love story and not quite as, well, passionate as I expected it to be.  I'm not even sure what I mean by that, I just know I was expecting a different book than what this actually was.  That doesn't mean I didn't like the book, I liked it very much.  The story of the student, Andras, meeting the ballerina, Klara, in Paris is simply the beginning of a much broader story.  Also, the fact that she's a few years older than him doesn't seem to be that big of a deal.  She does have a teenage daughter, that she had when she was only a teenager, which makes things a bit complicated.

But this story isn't just about their relationship, it's more about the ways some horrible events over which they had no control derailed their lives and their plans.  And it isn't just about these two people and how they were effected, but rather how everyone in their families, in their neighborhoods and in their country was effected.

This book is so very well written, once I got started, I didn't want to put it down, but at the same time, I was so horrified by what was happening that I was hesitant to continue, knowing things would only get worse.  The author manages to transport the reader into a time and place in history, and makes it feel as if we are living in that time period.  While I was reading this book, I couldn't stop thinking about it when I was away from the book and at night I would have dreams about the book. 

The characters have to leave Paris, and return to Budapest where much of the story takes place.  I liked the scenes in Paris best, because I could visualize the areas mentioned.  I've never been to Budapest.  Once they reach Budapest though, Andras is sent to a work camp and everything is downhill from there.  I suppose that's when I had to accept that this wasn't going to be some steamy, Parisian love story of two people escaping the Nazis.

My only issue with the book is that I found I did not like Klara.  There was something so selfish about her.  She was a beautiful woman who was used to men taking care of her.  Even with this younger man, she seemed to expect the same from him -- despite her claims that she could take care of herself.  And yes, she raised a daughter on her own, but she had a wealthy, married man helping her out financially.  Only when he moved on and decided to take of his own wife that she became involved with Andras.  Before him, her father was risking everything for her, and afterward, it was her brother having to save her.  Even after they'd lost almost everything, with no hope in sight, her husband in a work camp, her entire family living in a small apartment, she keeps getting pregnant.  Pretty sure that even then, there were precautions that could be taken until they were in a more stable situation. 

Throughout the book, I never warmed to that character, and I thought I would after she revealed her horrible secret, but I didn't.  I felt bad for her, but even then, it seemed like she made a decision that she had to have known would have a bad result.  (Not going to give it away because it's a fairly big revelation in the book.)

Despite not really liking Klara though, I really did like the book and would readily recommend it to anyone interested in that time period, or anyone simply wanting a big, engrossing book to get lost in for a few days.

It is tragic because how could it not be in that place and time.  It's truly horrifying to realize that those things happened in this world.  It's even more horrifying to know that others sat by and did nothing as it happened.  Maybe it was so horrible they couldn't believe it was really happening, but I don't know.  Seems like a lot of people readily turned away from the horror and thought they would be fine because it didn't directly affect them.  They thought it was just a small group of crazies, and then that small group took over their countries and everyone suffered.  There's a scene where the "illegal immigrants" are shot because they can't find their papers quickly enough and I couldn't help but think about how many people in this country would be just fine with that.  I can't help but think about our own country and how we allow the zealots to spout their craziness, their hatred for anyone who has a different religion or a darker shade of skin.  We have people in Arizona who think it's okay to harass anyone with dark skin, we have crazies blabbing on and on about how we need to blur the lines between church and state and allow their particular brand of religion into law.  Anyone who worships differently, or not at all is considered evil.  Most of all though, when I read a book like this, I worry that we've learned nothing from history.

finished reading around 3 a.m. Sept., 12, 2010

Devil's Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici by Jeanne Kalogridis

For the past few years, I've visited Europe once a year.  As anyone who has ever been to Europe knows, it's impossible to visit without seeing buildings that once housed royalty.  Much to my own embarrassment, I don't know a whole lot about the history of these building or the people who once inhabited them.  My history classes were taught by football coaches.  While I'm visiting, I read what I can at the location or in my guidebook and always wish I knew more, and then make plans to do more research before my next trip.  As soon as I return home, I visit the library, and check out a stack of books about the Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette.  Usually they sit in a stack by my bed for a few months, then summer fades and I become too busy with school to read and by the time summer rolls around again and I'm packing my bags for Europe, I find myself really wishing I'd read those books.  (I should clarify, I'm not completely ignorant, probably know a bit more about history than the average person, but I'm the sort who always wants to know more and when I'm walking through the Tower of London or the Palace of Versailles, I get frustrated when I can't quickly identify the names and time periods and activities of the people mentioned on the placards.)

This summer in Paris, I wandered into the Gardens of Luxembourg and saw the Medici fountain.  I didn't even though the Medici family ruled in France -- that's how ignorant I was on this.  I knew of this family only through their connection with Florence.

Shortly after returning from Paris, while at the library, I noticed this book, The Devil's Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici.  (I'd seen the book once before my trip, at a book store, but at the time I was looking for novels about the Tudors, so I set it aside, but added it to my reading list.)  The Medici fountain still fresh on my mind, I checked out the book.

I have to admit, I also was intrigued by the mention of the Queen's association with dark magic.  Magic is something I find of interest, especially the role it has played in history.  We live in a society that wants us to believe that all magic is nothing more than fiction, despite proof that it's been around for centuries.

I was a little hesitant about the book after reading some other reviews, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.  It's a well written, interesting story.  There are some soap opera-ish elements to the story, which make it quite intriguing, but I'm not sure of the accuracy.  It's a novel, not a history book, so, of course, some liberties were taken.  The conversation is written in a modern tone, which makes the story accessible, in my opinion. 

I found Catherine to be a fascinating character.  She was very determined to save herself and especially those she cared about.  However, this determination often caused her to make some dangerous decisions.  The character in the story realizes too late the mistakes she's made and finds herself in a difficult position to try to remedy what she's done.

Also, a benefit of the novel is that it did provide some historical information about this time period and these people.  Catherine's sons are kings during a time in which France was involved in a very bloody religious wars.  Such good Christians, slaughtering people to prove their way of worship is better. 

What I liked best about the book though is that Catherine is living in the Louvre during her time in Paris.  The Louvre is my favorite place in Paris, maybe my favorite place in the world.  Not only does it house thousands of works of art, but was also once a royal residence.  Every time I visit, I think of the artists, as well as the kings and queens that once called that place home.  I enjoyed reading this and trying to picture the events happening in the same corridors where millions of tourists now wander to view art.  Now though, I am in search of a map of the Louvre during the time of Catherine de Medici, so that I can see what parts of the building she and her family occupied, because I know that over the last few centuries there have been many changes to the former fortress.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it has prompted me to seek out more information about the people mentioned in the story.  Also, I should probably mention, the Medici fountain isn't even named after Catherine, but rather another Medici who only has one mention in this book.  Marie de Medici's role in French history didn't happen until after the events in this book.

finished reading: Oct. 3, 2010