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Friday, April 1, 2011

A Feast of Books

It seems that for the last several months, when it comes to great books, it’s either feast or famine. And right now I’ve been enjoying the most amazing feast. In the last month or so I’ve read 4 terrific books. Since I’m behind on writing reviews, I’m just going to do mini reviews of all four of them in one post.


Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier – Chevalier has written quite a few books, most famously The Girl with the Pearl Earring. She is one of my favorite authors and I’m always interested to check out her latest book. I must admit that when I read the summary of Remarkable Creatures, I was not all that interested and had decided not to read it. But then Peggy, one of my co-workers whose opinion I value, said it was a great story and would make a good book club choice. And she was right. The story takes place in the early decades of the 1800s during a time of great scientific discovery. Remarkable Creatures tells the story of Elizabeth Philpot and Mary Anning, two unlikely friends who live on the coast of England in an area rich in fossils. The two women are both fossil hunters – but for very different reasons. When Mary makes an important discovery, she is thrust into the world of academia, for which she is ill equipped and which is also closed off to her because she is a woman. But Remarkable Creatures is about so much more than fossil hunting. It’s about social class, the roles of the sexes in the early 19th century and most importantly about female friendship in all its incarnations. This is a great read and it generated a wonderful book discussion – all the more so since it is based on real people and actual events! 4 stars – I really liked it.



The Death of Ivan Ilyich
by Leo Tolstoy –
After watching the wonderful movie, The Last Station, about the last years of Tolstoy’s life, I found myself wanting to learn more about this intriguing and mystifying man. I did a little research which led me to want to immediately pick up one of his books and read it. I have always wanted to read Anna Karenina (and I will someday), but I decided I wasn’t ready to make such a big commitment. During my research, I learned that Tolstoy was fascinated with religion and death and that he was quite a philosopher. His novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich was mentioned as being “one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying”. I decided it would be the perfect book to scratch my Tolstoy itch. Not only is it short , it deals with a topic that is pure Tolstoy and it was written in the latter part of his life – which fit in nicely with the fact that my interest was generated by the movie. In addition, I remember having read it in college in my Russian Literature course and I still have my copy. It was so much fun to see the passages that I highlighted as a 20 year old all those years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this classic piece of literature, which deals with a middle aged man, who has followed all the rules in his life and now finds himself suddenly faced with his own death. A matter he has never spent a moment considering. The Death of Ivan Ilyich follows Ivan’s journey as he comes to terms with his imminent demise. I noticed as I was reading that my long ago self had not highlighted any of the 34 page introduction. Which is not all that surprising. But it is a shame, because I got so much more out of this story by having first read the introduction. I can’t say that I came to any great epiphany after reading Ivan’s story. I have a feeling I’m still too far removed from my own death (at least I hope I am), but it I did enjoy the wonderful writing and I certainly can appreciate Tolstoy’s message about death. I’m pretty sure the whole point of the story was lost on me as college student. I’m so glad I made the time to revisit this “supreme masterpiece”. 4 stars – I really liked it.



Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro –
I LOVED this book! I can not say it enough. I listened to the audio version of this one in my car and I’m not sure I would have loved it quite so much if I had read it, but I can’t be sure. The book is written in a very conversational style, which might have seemed a little sleepy on the written page. Never Let Me Go takes place in England in the 1990s (my best guess). It is narrated by Kathy, a 31 year old woman, who is reminiscing about her time at a Hailsham, a boarding school, with her two closest friends Tommy and Ruth. The students at Hailsham were sheltered from the outside world and made to feel special and separate from it. Kathy left Hailsham, Tommy and Ruth behind long ago, but when they are reunited she begins to allow herself to think about her time there and to explore the dark secrets of who they really are. I don’t want to give too much away, but Ishiguro masterfully reveals the plot in small crumbs that kept me questioning and rapt. I couldn’t wait to get into my car to run errands or drive to work. I simply had to find out how this story would fully reveal itself. Never Let Me Go would make a fabulous book club book since it not only deals with issues that lend themselves well to discussion, but Ishiguro also leaves the reader pondering some big questions. Fabulous! (Note: I have heard from a friend that her book club read this one and people either loved it or hated it, but I think it’s worth giving it a try. Because if you’re in the love it camp, you will be so happy to have read it). 5 stars – I LOVED it!


Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Unbroken tells the remarkable true story of the record breaking Olympic runner and WWII veteran and POW Louis Zamperini. The book covers Zamperini’s life from his years as a delinquent teenager all way up to the present day as a still vibrant 93 year old. But the majority of the book focuses on Zamperini’s time as a bombardier and POW in the Pacific theater during WWII. Zamperini’s plane was shot down over the Pacific and he and 2 other men survived over 40 days on a leaky life raft in the shark infested waters. That alone is hard to fathom. However, when the survivors finally wash ashore it is on a Japanese controlled island and the men are taken as POWs. The majority of the book chronicles Zamperini’s time in various POW camps . What Zamperini and the other POWs were subjected to defies explanation. There were many parts of the book that I found how to believe. And while many of the atrocities are related in the book, they are handled with great sensitivity. But this is not a story of torture, it is a story of survival and the strength of the human spirit and the incredible will to live. But most of all it is the story of human dignity. But I learned so much more by reading this book. I’m embarrassed to admit that aside from Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagaski, I knew nothing at all about the war in the Pacific. Seems all I ever learned about was the Germans, Hitler and the Holocaust. I know have a much fuller understanding of Japan’s role in the war. Unbroken is non-fiction at its best. 4 stars – I really like it.


It’s been a really good few weeks of reading for me. I hope it continues. How about you? Read any good books lately?


2 comments:

  1. I am so glad to hear that you loved Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro! I listened to this book a few years ago. Since that time I have recommended it often, and as you said, some loved it while others hated it. Both men I know that read it were neutral, which I found interesting.

    This book caused me to reflect on how important our upbringing is. As an example, cultures where marriages are arranged. If I grew up knowing that this is what is done and just the way it is, would I be ok with it? Possibly.

    I loved this book, but then tried Remains of the Day and just couldn't get into it :)

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