Wednesday, November 19, 2008

City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin

A fellow bibliophile sent me her copy of Ariana Franklin's City of Shadows. I picked it up off the cuff; the snippet on the back got my attention. As a historian of modern Europe, I enjoy reading fictional accounts of historical events. It is interesting to see how an author portrays famous moments through the eyes of individual characters. Once in a while I find myself frustrated at the historical inconsistencies in a novel, but in general I do not read fiction looking for a recreation of reality.

In that vein, Franklin has done an incredible job portraying interwar Berlin. Her story takes place in 1923, at the height of the German hyper-inflation and then in 1933 in the days preceding Hitler's election as Chancellor of Germany. The sense of realism that she describes as her characters walk through the streets, selling their personal belongings to buy food is really intriguing. I found myself tremendously invested in the lives of these characters. In the second half of the novel I held my breath knowing what was coming. Willing the characters to understand that despite their protestations, Hitler was going to come to power and destroy everything that they believed in. Franklin did an excellent job imbuing her story with the tensions of 1920s and 30s Berlin.

The story revolves around the... underworld, I suppose, of Berlin. The main character is a young Russian Jewish woman who works for a Russian shyster who owns nightclubs in Berlin. One of his clubs caters to homosexuals and the subplot revolves around this particular world. The one comment that I have about Franklin's story is that she gives the perception that homosexuality and cross-dressing were prevalent in this era. While it is true that this world did exist, it was a very small minority and did not have the public presence that I think she gives in her book. Nonetheless, she deals with the topic well and creates a fascinating world in which to place her novel.

Interestingly, my mom just finished this book as well - a total coincidence. When I mentioned the book she said, "Have you figured it out yet? There's a big hint at the beginning." At that point, I was reading purely for enjoyment. It had not occurred to me that there was a mystery to figure out. But, as soon as I thought for half a minute, I knew the answer. The big shock at the end of the book - yeah, not so shocking if you're looking for it.

All in all, a good read. I won't say light as it gets a bit heavy what with Nazis, homosexuals, and Russian pogroms. But an engaging read.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

There's nothing like a good young adult book to take a break from the real world. Especially with the incredible flowering of fantasy novels that have emerged in the wake of the Harry Potter phenomenon. There were tons of great young adult fantasies well before J. K. Rowling, but there presence in bookstores is overwhelming today.

In that vein, I picked up The Looking Glass Wars which my husband had bought and read a year or so ago. He had described the book as entertaining, which in his world means, "I read it in one sitting, ignored the world, and did not go to sleep until 2 am because I wanted to see how it ended." He had purchased it based on the recommendation of a bookstore owner who said Beddor's work was a good addition to the field of young adult adventure fantasy - building on the genre made famous by the now well-known retelling of The Wizard of Oz - Gregory Maguire's Wicked.

So what is the book about? Well, if you look at the title, it becomes vaguely self-evident. Beddor has retold the store of Alice in Wonderland. He begins with Alice Liddell running away from Lewis Carroll in frustration because he has so badly butchered the *true* story she told him about Wonderland. The book then takes the reader back to the life of Alyss Hart, seven year old princess of Wonderland, whose realm is ruled by White Imagination. Her nemesis is none other than Redd, her aunt who works with Black Imagination.

The story is inventive. It meshes well with the well-known story of Alice in Wonderland. But in addition, Beddor creates fascinating and unique characters to flesh out his world. The cards form an army known as "The Cut;" the Mad Hatter becomes Hatter Maddigan a bodyguard to the queen whose hat is his greatest weapon. The Cheshire Cat becomes the ultimate weapon used against the Alyssians (the good guys who follow Alyss) because of his ability to come back to life, yep, you guessed it, nine times.

I liked The Looking Glass Wars for me. But to be honest, I find some of the death, destruction, and violence in many young adult books to be too much for the young adult audience for whom it is written. I may have enjoyed it at 15-16, but as a parent I would not give it to my 12-13 year old to read. Plus, I'm getting a bit tired of retellings of famous works. They're novel, they're inventive. But are there no new ideas left?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Moo by Jane Smiley

I picked up Moo at a library book sale. I had my $5 for a bag of books half full, I recognized Jane Smiley's name, so I threw it in the bag. Less than a week later some friends were talking about reading a book in a book club sort of way. Lo and behold, Moo showed up on the list. I voted for it since at least it was already on my shelf and I had heard of it (I hadn't heard of any of the other options). Randomly enough, it won the vote and we are reading it this month.

I picked up Smiley's book and started reading having absolutely no expectations and knowing nothing about the book other than most of her novels take place in rural mid-America. My five year old son did ask me how you spell "oink." Having no idea why he asked, he pointed out that the cover of my book has a pig that says "moo." Quite a conundrum for a five year old: the pig is a character in the book, the name of the university is Moo.
This book is great!! For anyone who has any experience with college life, this book is worth reading. She has an incredible ability to succinctly and humorously encapsulate the inanity of universities.

The one thing I would have liked while reading was a cheat sheet to keep track of all of the characters. Smiley follows close to two dozen characters through the book - undergrads, professors, secretaries, cafeteria workers: if this person can be related to the university in some way, they can be a character in her book. And her means of moving from character to character is refreshing. As a reader, you're in the head of character A who talks to character B. Now you're in B's head. Then B gets lunch for character C and suddenly you're seeing the world through her eyes. But, there were moments when I had trouble keeping Diane and Keri and Divonne and Lydia straight. I would be reading along and go "Oh yeah, 50 pages ago she was in her dorm room..."

The stories that seem terribly diverse at the beginning all come together near the end of the book and combine to make a coherent story. The less than honest guys get their comeuppance. The sweet freshmen survive their year. The professors, for the most part, end up happy than they started. The story did drag a bit in the middle, but every so often Smiley incorporated the funniest most honest perspectives on college life that it kept me reading.

I understand that Moo is no longer in print. To a certain extent the book is dated: communism has just fallen in Russia and professors are trying to integrate that into their belief systems. However, I don't think it is so dated that it isn't imminently readable now. If you can get a hold of a copy - read, enjoy, laugh. It's fun.