Sunday, November 25, 2012

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

In 1941 fifteen-year-old Lina is looking forward to a summer at art school and dating boys with her cousin Joana.  But her life is shattered when the Soviet Police burst into her family’s home one June night. Lina, her beautiful mother, her little brother Jonas, and their father, the provost of a university, are sent to a Siberian prison camp as part of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic regions. Lina has to leave in her nightgown with only one suitcase and endure a hellish journey in a cramped train in a car labeled “Thieves and Prostitutes.”

Lina vows to survive and use her art to honor her family and the thousands like them and to document their experiences. She risks her life to send messages to to the camp where her father is held, pictures of hope to let him know they are alive and to help bring them back together.

While they work on a collective farm, sharing a shack with peasants who resent the intrusion, and struggling to survive, Lina looks back on happier times, remembering new dresses and ice cream comes, trips to museums, swimming in the Baltic Sea, and dating cute boys with her cousin. And later they are sent to the Arctic to build a fish factory and bakery, where only the guards are allowed decent shelter, the prisoners must see to their own with whatever scraps they can find’ they are forbidden to use any of the bricks intended for the factory.

This is a heartbreaking and powerful story of human cruelty and degradation, and humiliation, love and loss, and the struggle for personal dignity and survival.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay

Paris, 1869, the Emperor Napoleon III has decided the city is in dire need of renovation, and has ordered hundreds of houses, entire neighbors and city blocks, to be condemned, so that Paris can be turned into a truly modern city.

Rose Bazelet, a silver-haired widow of sixty, is determined to save her come on the rue de Childebert. It has been in her husband’s family since it was built in 1715, her children were born there, and she has spent her entire married life there and derives an income from the shops she rents on the ground floor. As the rumble of destruction draws nearer, and the floor shakes under her, she hides in the basement and writes letters to her late husband, Armand, reminiscing about their life together, recalling her wonderful mother-in-law who embraced like a daughter, so different from her own self-centered mother, the daughter she never bonded with, and the beautiful golden-haired little boy she lost to cholera, and her husband’s descent into illness that later claimed his life, and the shameful secret she has harbored for so many years. She is determined to die with the house since she cannot save it.

I enjoyed this novel, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and stories of families and secrets. I would also recommend it to those who like these kinds of stories but don’t like the big door-stopper sized books. This one is quite short and a quick read.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Healing by Jonathan Odell

On a Mississippi plantation in 1847 Amanda Satterfield, the lady of the house, is driven mad with grief when she loses her twelve-year-old daughter, Becky, to cholera. Her husband, Master Ben, considers cholera a “slave disease,” shameful affliction for whites, and refuses to summon the doctor. Her mind addled by grief, anger, and opium, Mistress Amanda decides to punish her husband by taking an infant slave girl as her own. She christens the girl Granada and as the years pass dresses her up in her dead daughter’s clothes and parades her before Southern high society to humiliate her husband.

At his wit’s end over his wife’s deteriorating mental health, knowing that he is a laughingstock in the eyes of their neighbors, and a mysterious plague that is sweepoing through his slave quarters, Master Ben buys Polly Shine, a slave woman reputed to have miraculous healing powers, learned from an Indian Medicine Man and an African midwife, for the astonishing sum of $5,000, more than he has ever paid for any slave, but he orders her to trains someone so in case anything happens to her he will be sure to get his money’s worth.

Polly recognizes “the gift” in Granada and demands to have the mistress’s little pet as her assistant. And a battle of wills ensues as the spoiled twelve-year-old Granada rebels against having to leave the great house to live in the quarters with Polly and be like all the other slaves. But Polly’s sharp tongue and disturbing predictions only lead to more trouble and unrest.

The story is told in flashback in 1933 as ninety-year-old Granada, called “Gran Gran” a healer who has followed in the footsteps of her mentor Polly Shine, and is now accustomed to wearing shifts stitched out of flour sacks instead of fancy silk and lace frocks, looks back on her own life to try to help a little girl who has lost her mother to a botched abortion.

This was a very interesting novel, for anyone interested in life on Southern plantations and slave culture before the Civil War, herbal healing, midwifery, and the power of belief, this will most likely be a very worthwhile read.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Greyfriars Bobby The Most Faithful Dog In The World by Jan Bondeson

This book tells the true story of the legendary little black and tan terrier who was said to have kept vigil on his master’s grave for fourteen years. This sentimental tale has spawned numerous articles, children’s books, inspired a film starring Lassie, and even a Disney movie. But is it true?

Jan Bondeson does an excellent job of investigating this tale of canine love and loyalty, tracing the story back to its Victorian era roots. Who was the master who merited such loyalty? Was it all just a hoax? A journalistic invention designed to appeal to Victorian sentimentality or help espouse the burgeoning cause of animal rights? Or was it a case of canine cunning—a clever little dog who found a safe shelter in the cemetery and knew the tourists who came to see him would shower him with affection and treats and the owners of nearby restaurants would not let him go hungry?

Mr. Bondeson does a thorough job of investigating the legend of Greyfriars Bobby, though the more sentimental as well as animal lovers may be disappointed with his ultimate conclusions.

The book also includes chapters about legends of canine fidelity and charting the evolution of “The Dog on the Master’s Grave” stories which have been particularly prevalent in France and all parts of the British Isles dating back some centuries.