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Archive for May, 2011

I started reading 22 Britannia Road because I was firmly entrenched in my WWII book bucket and I had no desire to get out of it yet.  I therefore looked for other WWII books, and happened upon this one. Amazon categorizes it as one of the best books of the month for April 2011. 

I was unhappily so-so about this book. The story is an interesting one – Silvana is left in Poland when her new husband joins the war.  She is pregnant, and has a baby boy, and what happened to her while she was on her own forms the back story of her secrets that she hides when she is reunited in England with her husband.  On the other hand, Janusz, her husband, has his own story of secrets that he hides when he finds his wife and arranges for her and their son to travel to England to finally live together as a family.

Silvana’s story is a gripping tale, and most of the time I wished that I was just reading about her.  Unfortunately, the book skipped between her story (her past from her point-of-view) to Janusz’s story (his past from his point-of-view).  It also threw in Silvana’s story from her point-of-view when she moves to England, as well as Janusz’s, as well as their son Aurek’s own story. As a result, I felt that there were too many point-of-view changes.  Each one of them all had compelling stories, but it was just a bit much to keep changing every chapter. I was most interested when reading the chapters that were in Silvana’s point-of-view; both in the past and in her current life in England. The book really told the story of what it was like for a refugee to move to England after the war was over – and even included some jealousy/ snide remarks from their English neighbors who think that the foreigners all work too hard and make the English look lazy.

22 Britannia Road has a great “ohmygod” moment near the end, which threw me for a loop and kept me interested. But, because I was slightly bored for some of the other chapters, I gave this book an Average rating (***).

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It is hard for me to give One of Ours only a *** star rating, given that it is generally considered a classic, and written by such a wonderful author as Willa Cather. I loved reading Cather’s My Antonia – she has such a distinct style that she uses to describe landscapes and to write conversations between people – but I did not love reading Cather’s One of Ours. At least, I did not love reading the first two-thirds of One of Ours. If I could give a separate review to the final third of the book, it would be *****LOVE.

The first two-thirds of One of Ours is about Claude Wheeler, a farm boy in Nebraska who lives and works on his father’s very lucrative farm, but always dreams for something big and new to happen to him. He went to University in Lincoln but did not finish his degree because he was needed back at the farm. He marries the daughter of his neighbor, only to realize that he has made a big mistake, and then watches her leave for China to help her missionary sister. When World War I breaks out, Claude and his mother read the newspapers with great attention, and she even finds an old map to put up so that they can follow the stories of the battles and see where the Germans are going. Claude decides that the war is what he was waiting for, and he enlists.

The last one-third of the the book was my favorite. This section follows Claude on the ship from New York to France and then while he is an Officer of his battalion in France. I found that the descriptions of Claude’s life in Nebraska were too long and rambling, and I was easily frustrated with his slow and lazy way of thinking. I felt the complete opposite, however, once the story was moved to France. Maybe the war made it a bit more exciting than reading about Claude’s favorite timber land on his father’s land in Nebraska, but the last few chapters of this book were breathtaking.

I am sorry to only give One of Ours an “Average” rating, because the last third was so good. It was just unfortunately a bit too hard to actually get to that last third.

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In the Garden of Bests is the story of William Dodd and his family, who moved from Chicago to Berlin in 1933.  FDR chose William Dodd, who was, at the time, a Professor of History at the University of Chicago, as the American Ambassador to Germany.  The book jacket refers to Mr. Dodd as the first Ambassador to “Hitler’s Germany,” since Hitler had been appointed Germany’s Chancellor in the beginning of 1933.  Mr. Dodd had no previous diplomatic experience, but felt himself up to the task; his primary aim was to fulfill his diplomatic obligations while living within the means of his $17,500 salary.  At that time, most diplomats were old Harvard buddies who were all independently wealthy and usually spent more than 5 times their salary on lavish parties and expensive mansions.  One example of Mr. Dodd’s frugality that was pointed to throughout the book was his trusted Chevy, which he had shipped over to Berlin so that he would not have to buy an unnecessarily expensive German car. As a way of keeping his living expenses down, Mr. Dodd leased the first 3 floors of a house that was owned by an extremely wealthy Jewish banker. The banker and his family continued to live in the top floor of the house; Erik Larson suggests that this Jewish family proposed this living arrangement to Mr. Dodd because it would mean that they would no doubt be safer living in the house of the American ambassador.

Much of this story also centers on Mr. Dodd’s daughter, Martha.  Martha was 25 at the time that she moved with her parents to Berlin, and was determined to enjoy herself and experience all that Berlin had to offer.  Because of the year that Martha arrived in Berlin, this meant that she soon became a regular among the circle of powerful Nazis that dined and drank and entertained nightly throughout Berlin’s restaurants and night clubs. Martha had many affairs with many men – among them Nazis, writers, and a KGB agent.

In the Garden of Beasts was written in very short chapters, with a lot of foreshadowing. Much of the story comes from letters and diaries, which are all extremely well cited in the back of the book. By presenting the story in this way, the reader is allowed to form his or her own opinion of Mr. Dodd and whether or not he was successfully fulfilling his duties. I, personally, became frustrated with Mr. Dodd’s criticisms of other diplomats and his intense focus on those diplomats who spent without regard for budgets (one of his primary criticisms was that telegrams from his office to the US were too long, which meant that they were more costly).  He frequently wrote letters to his superiors, complaining about other diplomats and was then surprised that these supposedly confidential letters were cited in the press.  I wondered what would have happened had he been more vocal in his criticisms or worries about the Hitler regime (about which he wrote frequently in his diary, but – in my opinion – not nearly enough in his letters or updates to the US).

Eventually, Mr. Dodd’s adversaries (the wealthy old-school diplomats) prevailed, and FDR asked Mr. Dodd to resign his post, which he did in December 1937. After he resigned his post, he travelled the US, giving speeches that warned of the dangers posed by Hitler – the beginnings of which he had seen firsthand in Berlin. It is hard for me to say that I LOVED this book because using the word “LOVE” when describing a book about Hitler does not seem like an appropriate description. I give the book a *****star rating, however, because it was so gripping, and interesting, and clearly written. I read the book in about a day, and when I finished I was sad to put it down. It was so interesting to have that insider’s view to what it was like to live in Hitler’s Berlin that I was disappointed that it essentially ended in 1937. Because I was disappointed that it was finished, I believe that In the Garden of Beasts deserves a ****star rating, and I highly recommend it.

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If you like laughing out loud while reading your books, then I highly recommend that you read some Nancy Mitford. One of my favorite collections of books is Nancy Mitford’s three stories: The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and The Blessing. The wit and style with which these books were written make them extremely enoyable and laugh-out-loud funny. The books take place in England (and a bit in France) – the first two books take place around WWII while The Blessing takes place during the war and immediately after.

The Pursuit of Love is told from the point of view of Fanny, who is a cousin to the many Radlett children who live on an estate called Alconleigh, and often stayed at their house with them. She is the one sane one amid a whole slew of ridiculous characters, and her best friend among the Radletts is her cousin Linda – who is the focal point of The Pursuit of Love.  Linda’s love life provides the basis for this book, and the absurdities of her character are highlighted by the fact that Fanny is so relatively normal and even-keeled.  Love in a Cold Climate is again told by Fanny, but centers on the  Hampton family (Lord and Lady Montdore) – neighbors of the Radletts and one of the wealthiest families in England. Once the Hamptons arrive back in England from India where Lord Montdore was Viceroy, Lady Montdore, mother to Polly Hampton, focuses on finding a husband for Polly. Fanny is generally involved in the ensuing dilemmas and disasters because she is Polly’s friend and stayed at the Hampton mansion sometimes on her way home from Alconleigh. Finally, The Blessing is a story about Grace Allingham, a young Englishwoman who goes to live in France with her aristrocatic husband. Grace’s naivete, coupled with her husband Charles-Edouard’s complete ‘frenchness’ make for amusing stories. Grace soon cannot stand her husband’s infidelities, and takes her son Sigismond (the blessing) back to England; during this separation, Sigi soon realizes that he gets anything he wants when he is alone with each parent who feels guilty that he is the child of separated parents, and he wickedly tries to keep them apart. 

I think that the reason these books really hit home with me is because I have read a few biographies about the Mitford family, and the Radletts are modelled on the Mitfords[1].  Further, Linda (from The Pursuit of Love) and Grace (from The Blessing) both seem to have quite a lot of the real Nancy Mitford in them.  I love that the Radlett children say “Do admit, Fanny” and refer to friends or foes as “hons” (as in ‘honorable’ because they make special note of Lords and Ladies) or “counter-hons”.  The Mitfords actually spoke in these terms, as is evidenced in the books of letter collections between the sisters that I have read.   Each of the books end rather abruptly, but leave the reader with the sense that the endings are happy ones.  I can’t wait to read them all over again.   

[1] If you are interested in reading about the Mitfords, I highly recommend The Mitford Girls, by Mary Lovell, and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, by Charlotte Mosley.

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As I have written many times before in this blog, I have a hard time moving away from certain categories of books. That is why, after reading Countess Kate, I immediately started the most recent Flavia de Luce mystery – A Red Herring Without Mustard – by Alan Bradley. Both books have, as their central characters, mischievous little girls that manage to get into trouble at every turn (sometimes it’s their doing, sometimes it’s their bad luck). Both books are set in England, and while Countess Kate is set in the 1800’s, Flavia roamed her little corner of England right after WWII. Both books and both characters are adorable and make for fun, light, easy reading.  Maybe I’m stuck in this category because of the recent to-do about the Royal Wedding??

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Countess Kate was one of the classics that I could download for free onto my e-Reader, but after finishing it, and finding it to be much better than many of the books I have read this year; I now know it would have been worth the price of any current bestseller. This is a little classic from the 1800’s that is simply the perfect little book. It is about an orphan girl – Kate – who, when her parents died when she was at a very young age, went to live with her maternal cousins and lived happily with them in their little parsonage and thought of them as brothers and sisters and mother and father. She and her cousin Sylvia, as little girls did back then, dreamt of Countesses, and – as luck would have it – the figureheads of her paternal family soon passed away, leaving 10-year-old Kate to become the heiress to the title of Countess Katherine. Her Aunts in London (who remained silent the first time she was in need of a home when her parents died) then take her away from the little parsonage so that she can learn the proper manners and ways of her station. The little girl’s tale is told with such innocence and kindness that throughout little Kate’s mischievous ways (though nothing that she did was intentionally bad) we still love her and pity her having to live in that strict house with the two old Aunts.  Countess Kate is an adorable, enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

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