Review: Suite Francaise

So we’re going to try something different for 2014. Instead of reviewing every single thing that I read, I’m just going to review things that I think my audience of one should read. Or at least see why it might be good to read. First up: Suite Francaise.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
2004, 448 pages

This book has made its way onto a variety of the “100 Books to Read” lists. I am not sure if it is because of the book itself, or the circumstances of the publishing.

Nemirovsky was a upper class Russian who ended up emigrating to France because of the Russian Revolution. She was a Russian, and a Jew. Two strikes. She became a famous author, married, had two daughters. And then World War II began. At the end of Suite Francaise, there are notes that Nemirovsky wrote about how she wanted to put together the book. There were supposed to be five sections, based on the war that she was living through. However, only two were published. She couldn’t finish writing the book because the war had not played out yet, among other reasons.

In 1942, while she was in the middle of writing the book, she was taken to Auschwitz where she died. Her daughters spent the rest of the war hiding from the SS. One of the daughters had the presence of mind to take the unfinished manuscript with her in her suitcase. It was too painful to look at, but eventually when the daughter did look at the manuscript, which she thought was just notes, she realized it was a novel. Thus, why it was published some 60 or so years after it was written.

As I said, there are two sections of the book. “Storm in June” focuses on about five different families fleeing Paris before the German occupation. “Dolce” is set in a small French town that is occupied by the Germans and a soldier moves in to every home.

I liked the book, it is well written, but I think I preferred the first section, “Storm in June.” She chooses a variety of characters, some rich, some middle class, an author, a very weird collector of beautiful things, and what they choose to do when faced with fleeing Paris.

“Dolce” focuses on three families in the small town that is occupied. The rich woman whose husband is the mayor, a middle class woman who sticks to her principles and really, really hates the Germans, and a farmer’s family. Naturally, all of these people hate each other, not just the Germans.

So, I thought it was very well written, and interesting, because it focuses more on the people and their interactions than it does on the whole impending doom thing. So while I think at least some of the hype is because of the way it was published, it really is a good read. It’s not nearly as depressing as you think it will be, and some of the characters provide much needed humor.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5 bedazzles


First Reviews of 2014

Who knew I would still be doing this? The beginning of the year was low key enough, and the two books I read interesting enough, that the first weekend I have two books to review! But first, the bad news. There were also two books that I could not, for some reason, finish reading.

Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman
2013, 480 pages

This is a collection of short stories selected by Gaiman. I read about half of them, and only disliked about two. So, those are good odds. Unfortunately it was just far too long for me to pay attention to. I also have to be in the right mood for short stories, and after 200-and-some pages I was out.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
2012, 302 pages

I must have read a review of this somewhere, or a synopsis, and that is why I deicded to try and read this one. Unfortunately, I didn’t get past the first chapter. A rich banker is driving to his summer house on an island where his daughter is getting married. Meanwhile, he’s pulling the dirty-old-man thing and wants to sleep with one of his daughter’s bridesmaids. Nope, not going to read that.

Now the books I did finish:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
2010, 274 pages

Larry and Silas, one white and one black, were secret friends when they were young. At that point there was to be little mixing of the races. One night Larry takes a girl out on a date and she never returns. Ostracized from his small town in Mississippi, he lives alone, and lonely, until 20 years later another teenage girl disappears. Now Silas, a cop, has to figure out what happened to the girl, and what happened all those years ago.

I’m not big on mysteries, but this one didn’t feel very long and was interesting. It alternated between the current investigation and the past with the two boys. I don’t think I liked it as well as Tilted World, also written by Franklin, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 bedazzles

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith
2013, 352 pages

I read about this book somewhere and thought it sounded interesting. I really enjoyed it, but it was not entirely what I thought it would be. I thought the book would focus more on Zelda Fitzgerald, than Evalina Toussaint. The synopsis even says, “Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses the cascading events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them.”

The book did not focus on the relationship with Zelda, but did focus on all relationships that Evalina made during her time at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Evalina ended up at Highland when she was 13, after her mother (a prostitute), killed herself. Evalina goes back and forth between the real world and Highland, which is run by Dr. Carroll and his wife. After she loses a baby, she comes back as a patient, and then ends up working on the staff.

The relationships between Evalina and all the patients are all documented, and Zelda Fitzgerald does appear every so often, as she leaves and returns to Highland. But the parts that I found most interesting about this were the descriptions of treatment at Highland.

Shock therapy and insulin therapy were common, and terrifying, for me at least. Patients were essentially put into diabetic comas to help rewire the brain and make patients, many who suffered from depression, more normal. “On a few tables there lay only one syringe, which was destined for the metrazol shock patients such as myself. We, too, would be thrown into a spontaneous convulsion, like an epileptic fit.” Just….how is that okay?!

Another patient was sterilized, because she was white and had a black boyfriend. “‘Necessary therapeutic sterilization was performed for the public good…you gotta understand, these morons breed like mink. And she had run off with a Negro, remember that. The duty of the state is to protect the race.'”

It’s not all that depressing. There were performances, dances, gardening and other activities there too. It was a quick, interesting, enjoyable read. I recommend.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 bedazzles

Vacation Reading

Ah vacation, I love you. Also a time to catch up on some reading that is not school related. Here are all the books I read during vacation, and the end of 2013!

The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall
2008, 305 pages

Sarah Lyall is a journalist who moved to London in the 1990s, married a British man, and lives there now. In this book she talks about all the cultural differences between the British and Americans. Topics that are covered: Parliament, boarding schools, stiff upper lips, the royals, you get the idea. However, it was just okay. I didn’t really care for the way it was written and it was not as interesting, or amusing, as I had hoped.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 bedazzles

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
2013, 266 pages

This book was written for kids. The school librarian told me it was a good one, so I agreed to try it. The reading level is about 7th grade. It was a very good read though.

Shortly before World War II, scientists discovered that if you shot uranium atoms at more uranium atoms it created a lot of energy. Scientists began testing it all over the world to see what could be done with it. With the beginning of WWII, someone naturally figured out that it could be used in weapons. The US, Germany and Soviet Union all decided that they needed to try and create a bomb using uranium. Soviet spies weaseled their way into the US to try and steal the secrets of the team, led by Robert Oppenheimer, that was working on the bomb for the US. Germany, after invading Norway, was taking heavy water from a plant that would allow them to use that water to create an atomic bomb, and needed to be stop. And Oppenheimer was busy working for the government and trying to get a bomb ready as quickly as possible.

The US won the beginning of the arms race, obviously, dropping the two atom bombs they made on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But the way that they got there was very interesting. It’s a good read, and you learn many things. One thing I learned, Robert Oppenheimer and Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory look a lot alike, which is probably intentional.

Robert Oppenheimer

Jim Parsons, aka Sheldon Cooper

For Every Solution, a Problem by Kerstin Gier
2007, 304 pages

I have not suddenly learned how to speak German. Gier is a German author, who also wrote the Precious Stones Trilogy that I quite enjoyed, (see October 11’s post for the review of the first book) and apparently Goodreads isn’t smart enough to have the English translation on the website.

Anyway, Gerri is almost thirty, (gasp!) and apparently the bane of her family’s existence. She is always the youngest, who is foolish, the only brunette in a family of blonds, and a romance writer to boot. Her entire family seems ashamed. Gerri decides that is a neurotic depressive and decides to commit suicide by taking all of her mother’s sleeping pills. However, before she goes she writes a series of goodbye letters to family, friends and coworkers to share what she really thinks of them. Through a series of misadventures, Gerri’s suicide plot fails, and she must deal with the fact that everyone now knows what she thinks about them.

I was a bit concerned during the first half of the book, because I wasn’t sure that it was such a good idea. But I ended up finding it mildly amusing. Fun fact: when you rent an apartment in Germany you have to pay for the kitchen appliances. It’s a good quick read, but probably not something that you absolutely MUST pick up.

Rating: 3 out of 5 bedazzles

House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus Book 4) by Rick Riordan
2013, 597 pages

Do you see how long this book is? Do you? 597 pages, that is a bit of a time commitment. The other problem: I don’t remember what happened in the first three books! So, I was just confused. There are so many pages, that rereading the previous books would just make it so much MORE of a time commitment! 7 demigods are zooming around the world to try and keep the gods, who are suffering from split personalities (their Greek and Roman sides), from disappearing forever because Gaea, older earth goddess, is rising and wants to destroy the world and have it overrun with monsters. There are many quests, and much killing of monsters.

There is apparently at least one more in this series. I just don’t know if I can stand it.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5 bedazzles

We’ve reached it. The end of vacation.

And with the end of vacation, comes the final review.

Longbourn by Jo Baker
2013, 352 pages

This book has received a lot of hype, or at least, hype that I am aware of. Longbourn is the story of the servants in the Bennett household. Sarah, Polly, Mr. and Mrs. Hill take care of the Bennett family through all of their relevant Pride and Prejudice drama. Relevant plot points, such as Lydia running off with Wickham, and Mr. Collins’ visit, are included. However, these are shown through the point of view of the servants. Along with the household drama, Sarah must choose between two suitors, the servant to Mr. Bingley, Ptolemy, and a mysterious new manservant who comes to serve at Longbourn.

The trouble with reading books that are continuations of a story that is so well known as Pride and Prejudice is that I have expectations about them. I thought that the characters from P&P would be int he story more, and that that plot would be followed more closely. Of course, why the servants would be included in that, I have no idea.

It was good, and interesting, and definitely works with P&P.

Rating: 4 out of 5 bedazzles

In other news, I read more or less 124 books last year. How many will be read in 2014?