BOOK REVIEW: The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

The Clothes on Their BacksThe Clothes on Their Backs
By Linda Grant
Completed November 12, 2012

The Clothes on Their Backs is the Orange- and Booker-nominated book by Linda Grant – and it’s certainly worthy of its accolades. Set in London during the 1970’s, it’s an enthralling look at family relationships, war and growing up in the shadow of family secrets.

Vivien Kovacs is the daughter of her reclusive, refugee parents, who emigrated from Hungary to London during World War II. Vivien’s parents shielded her from life’s experiences, including a complete avoidance of Vivien’s uncle Sandor, who also lived in England after the war. Once Vivien graduated from college, she became more and more curious about her mysterious uncle, who had served time in prison for being a “slum lord.” She finally got an opportunity to meet him and forged a relationship with her uncle, despite her father’s wishes.

I can’t say Vivien was the most likable character, but she was very believable. She was flawed and human, like her uncle. I was most intrigued, though, by Vivien’s mother, Berta. She was a minor character in the book, but Grant left enough of a breadcrumb trail to make you wonder more about her. I think there was more there than met the eye.

The Clothes on Their Backs is a superb telling of the World War II refugee experience and the circumstances of family secrets. Most skeletons find their way out of the closet, and Vivien’s family was no exception. Grant had me at Word One, and I devoured this novel, eager to learn more about Vivien and her family. I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending, especially the death of Uncle Sandor, but this is a small quibble. All in all, The Clothes on Their Backs was a readable and fascinating story about family relationships. (  )


BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann MartelBeatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
Completed May 7, 2012

When Beatrice and Virgil was released in 2010, it received scathing reviews from critics. I had received an advanced reader’s edition of Yann Martel’s book, but after seeing such bad reviews, my copy of Beatrice and Virgil got relegated to the back of my shelf. When looking for a short book to read, I found it and decided to give it a whirl, half expecting to stop after a few pages. Well, I finished the book in two sittings.

Beatrice and Virgil is a cerebral, philosophical novel that, at its core, is a Holocaust story. Henry is the narrator, and he is a highly successful author who wants to write a story about the Holocaust that is creative but raw. He comes up with a “flip book” that is part essay, part fiction. Certain that he created something brilliant, Henry was devastated to learn that his book would not be accepted by his publisher. Restless, Henry moves, takes up a job at a chocolate store and spends time answering fan letters. One day, he received a cryptic letter from someone locally, asking for help. Henry seeks out his fan, and he strikes up an odd friendship with the man, also named Henry, who was a taxidermist.

I won’t reveal too much more about the plot, but suffice it to say that the last few pages had an unexpected turn. At least this reader didn’t see it coming.

Critics blasted Martel for writing a Holocaust story as an animal allegory, trivializing these events through the torture of a donkey and a Howler monkey. I think the critics missed the point. Just like his main character, Martel devised a creative but raw story about the Holocaust that is provocative and gripping. There are parts of Beatrice and Virgil that will grab you by the throat (and be warned: a heart-wrenching scene of animal cruelty). By the end of the book, I felt quite convinced that Martel pulled it off.

So, decide for yourself if you think Beatrice and Virgil is a work of creativity or trivialization. For me, it was a work of pure creativity. (  )


FTC: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: No One Is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona Ausubel

No One Is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona AusubelNo One Is Here Except All Of Us
By Ramona Ausubel
Completed February 3, 2012

In a small village in Romania, a group of Jewish residents lived in relative harmony. Their village was on a small peninsula where a tiny strip of land connected it to the mainland. One evening, as they gathered for prayer, they witnessed a plane bomb the other side of the mountain. War had finally arrived in their corner of Romania. Bewildered, they weren’t sure what to do. They had read newspapers and heard radio reports about Jews being rounded up and sent to camps. Fearing the same fate, the village listened to the voice of a 11-year-old girl, Lena, who suggested they just start over – to wake up the next day to a new world. And for more than three years, this tactic successfully protected them from the atrocities of World War II.

It takes a tremendous suspension of belief to read No One Is Here Except All Of Us. You, as the reader, must commit to the characters’ idea that the village was reborn into a new world. Families were switched around, time was of no consequence and the village managed to stay self-sufficient and untouched until almost the end of the war. Thankfully, Ausubel is a gifted writer with a knack for creating realistic characters, especially the story’s main character, Lena. Most of the story is told from Lena’s perspective – a young woman who endures more than one should.

Admittedly, I had an easier time reading the novel once the village had to break out of its safe cocoon, though I was saddened that their experiment couldn’t protect them any longer. When the villagers realized the war had arrived at their doorstep, my heart broke for each person.

No One Is Here Except For All Of Us will not be for every reader. It has a poetic feel with simple storytelling that may annoy readers. True realists should stay away from this book completely. But for some of you – the dreamers, the imagineers – this book will works its magic. To you, I recommend No One Is Here Except For All Of Us unreservedly.  (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader by Bernhard SchlinkThe Reader
By Bernhard Schlink
Completed December 11, 2011

I picked up The Reader from a Borders closeout sale. It was cheap, and the cover with Kate Winslet on it reminded me that people liked the novel and movie. I had no idea what it was about,  but who could give up a bargain?

What I didn’t bargain for was to be completely moved by this story. How I wish I could have read The Reader with a lively book group or in a college class! The Reader has so many ethical layers that it left me thinking about the book long after I finished the last page. And, for me, that’s the hallmark of a provocative story.

I won’t give too much away because I think discovering the plot twists are part of the book’s appeal. In short, at the age of 15, Michael Berg falls in love with a woman more than twice his age. Hanna was mysterious and sensual – a adolescent’s dream. When she took off one day without notice, Michael was heartbroken and never fully recovered from the loss of Hanna from his life. Their paths cross again, though, and Michael learns about Hanna’s secrets – many of which are deplorable. How can this be the same Hanna he fell in love with as a teenager?

From a historical fiction perspective, The Reader exposes the moral dilemmas of the German generation whose parents were involved in the Third Reich, which is a viewpoint I had never considered before. Mix this with compelling characters and ethical questions, and you have The Reader. If you love historical fiction and thought-provoking stories, The Reader will leave you very satisfied. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House by Nicole KraussGreat House
By Nicole Krauss
Completed July 7, 2011

“…Every Jewish soul is built around a house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again…” (page 279)

Great House isn’t about a house per se. Rather, it’s the story of  people with a deep and tormented history – who individually represent a sliver of their collective past, but together, form a congruous whole. In this story, a desk is the connecting theme – an assuming piece of furniture that began in the office of a Jewish man in Budapest and made its way around the world, touching and affecting the lives of many people.

In this story, we meet a writer who lives in New York, an antiques dealer and his family from Jerusalem, a retired prosecutor and his son from Israel and a British couple. With one exception, the desk spends time with each person – often carrying good luck but painful memories too. As the story progressed, you follow the journey of the desk and the people who sat at it. In time, you see the other connections between each one.

Nicole Krauss is a gifted storyteller who is not afraid to take her readers on a journey that can be complicated and arduous. Indeed, Great House is not the easiest book to read with its swirling storylines and flowery language. It requires concentration as you learn about these characters whose lives are separate but connected. Each story could stand alone, but when placed together, they evoke a deeper meaning.

Great House will probably be revered by fans of literary fiction. It would make a compelling book for discussion, especially if led by the right moderator. In the end, I am glad I took the time to read this book – and sure that I will be thinking about this story for a long time. (  )

REVIEW: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room
By Simon Mawer
Completed April 10, 2011

Many forces come into play when I select a book to read. Often, I rely upon the reviews and comments of other book readers whose opinions are like mine. I also take into consideration any literary awards, which often tip me off to a great book. And, of course, the story must sound compelling.

Using this process, I picked The Glass Room, which seemed to be a sure-fire win for me. Several of my like-minded friends raved about this book. It was short-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which I usually have good luck with. And the plot of a Czech family caught up in the tragedy of World War II should be up my alley.

Even the best laid plans can go array, though. Sadly, that is what happened when I read The Glass Room. Despite my best efforts, this book didn’t click for me.

Let me express the good qualities of this book first. First, Mawer’s writing style is descriptive and rich. He can paint a picture in the mind’s eye, which helps propel his novel. Additionally, he did a great job incorporating the arts into the novel. With an architectural feat such as the Glass House, that’s an important thing to do, but he also wove in music, painting and sculpture – and did so beautifully. Finally, the plight of early Czechoslovakia as it struggled to get its legs between the World Wars was illuminating, and I learned more about this aspect of history.

Here’s where I struggled: the characterization. It was very one-dimensional, and as a result, I didn’t like one character. Perhaps I would have liked them more if Mawer had given me more information about them. His characterization centered around their sex lives. Each character’s lives were qualified by their sexual activity or desires. Making this worse was the unequal descriptions about sex. Mawer fills us with intimate details about the female characters – the size of their breasts, the color of their nipples, the roundness of their bellies, the texture of their pubic hairs. However, with the male characters, we got nothing – not even a chest hair. Sex was definitely told from a male perspective in this story.

I am in the minority when it comes to The Glass House, so I encourage you to read other reviews before deciding on this book. Many other readers were moved by this story, and you might be too. As for me, I am happy that The Glass House is over and ready to find a book that better fits my fickle tastes. (  )

REVIEW: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key
By Tatiana de Rosnay
Completed November 10, 2010

I tip my hat to Tatiana de Rosnay for picking a “hidden” historical fact and shedding light on it. In Sarah’s Key, the hidden fact is actually an event – the round up of French Jews by French police on July 16, 1942. These French citizens were crammed into the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycle arena, without food, water, sanitation or ventilation. Then, they were shuttled into cattle cars to concentration camps – first in France and then Poland. Of the 42,000 Jews rounded up that day, only 811 came home at the end of the war.

In Sarah’s Key, the reader follows young Sarah Starzynski, a 10-year-old French Jewish girl, who was part of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. As the police banged on her apartment door, she hid her little brother in a locked cabinet, assuming she would be back to rescue him. Unfortunately, Sarah didn’t make it back, and we follow her journey through the Vel d’Hiv and her imprisonment.

The book rotates between Sarah’s story and that of Julia, an American-born journalist living in Paris, who was researching the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup for work. Julia takes an interest in the roundup when she learns that her husband’s grandmother’s apartment was occupied by a Jewish family who was imprisoned that fateful day.  Through Julia’s research, the reader learns more about what the Jewish people faced and how French people ignored their participation in this horrendous event.

Where de Rosnay stumbled, though, is in her telling of Julia. Julia’s personal life, in my opinion, detracted from the story. Julia’s marriage to an egotistical French man, her unexpected pregnancy and predictable resolution to her situation did  not enhance the story. I felt like I was watching Schindler’s List mixed with The Young and the Restless. I couldn’t reconcile the two themes.

So, I recommend the good parts of Sarah’s Key to readers.  It’s a quick read, and if you skim through Julia’s sections, you’ll walk away with a solid understanding of another sad chapter in Jewish history. ( )

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