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Sunday, August 15, 2010

City of Thieves by David Benioff

At only 258 pages, this is a great, quick read for both men and women alike.  Set during the siege of Leningrad in 1942, this story revolves mainly around two young men, boys really.  Lev is Jewish and so his existence is precarious at best.  Kolya is blond, blue-eyed, with handsome Cossack features.  Where Lev is introverted and shy, Kolya oozes confidence, and charms everyone around him. 

Lev's father (a famous poet) has been "taken" by the secret police, and his mother and sister have fled the city.  Like most teenage boys, Lev proudly stays behind to defend his home, and is the commander of his apartment building's volunteer fire brigade.   One night on the roof, Lev and his friends see a downed paratrooper and rush to ransack the body.  You see, they are all starving.  Cannibalism is rampant (a true historical fact) and they are tearing apart books to boil down the bindings to eat the animal proteins in the glue.  This confection is called "Library Candy" and it's hard to come by and very expensive.  There are no dogs and cats left in the city.  Lev is caught looting the paratrooper's body, and sent to a formidable and infamous prison known as The Crosses.  There he meets Kolya, and the next morning, they are dragged before a high-ranking military officer who tells them they can go free on one condition.  They must somehow procure one dozen eggs, to be used in a wedding cake for the Colonel's beautiful daughter.  How they go about getting one dozen fragile eggs in the middle of a war, in the dead of a brutal Russian winter is the event-filled story.  This author was a student of Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and he also wrote the screenplay for the movie The Kite Runner.  To write this book, David Benioff relied heavily on the personal diaries and journals of those who survived the actual siege, and historical books written about same.   The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison Salisbury was his bible as he wrote.  With the somber subject matter, I thought this would be a hard book to get through, but it wasn't.  It's not a long book and there are little moments of levity in among the harrowing circumstances.  A really interesting read.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

OK, this is the book of the summer for me.  It might even turn out to be the book of the year for me.  The author has ancestral ties to the old Mormon church in Utah, and maybe that's how he's been able to make it seem as if you're really stepping into that world behind the walls of a large polygamist family compound.  In an earlier post I reviewed the book The Nineteenth Wife  by  David Ebershoff.  Whereas the modern-day portion of that book was set mostly outside the grounds of the Mormon church and its family compounds, this one is right smack dab in the middle of it.  We have our main character Golden Richards; an innocent, bumbling hulk of a man who is overwhelmed by his four wives and his 28 children, and all the bills they come with.  Every character is finely etched, right down to Cooter the bug-eyed dog, and four-year-old Ferris who revels in running around with no pants on with all the joy of an escaped convict.  There's one wife, Trish, who is a bit more in focus than the others, and we see a lot of the Richards family through her eyes.  And then there's Rusty, the young boy who gives us an entirely different view of this cloistered world.   In The Nineteenth Wife, we saw more of the darker side of plural marriage, the Lost Boys, etc.  In this book, we see a lighter side, in that the many members of the Richards family are all good people at heart.  But, when you have that many children and wives, how can everyone feel validated?  That is the question.  And what are the consequences?  To find that out, you'll have to dive into this story.  And to entice you a bit further, there are a lot of funny and poignant moments in this book.  I couldn't put it down.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is the 2nd book by this author that I have read.  I have to say that, for me, this one blows her other book (Purple Hibiscus) out of the water.   And her other book was good.  So, if this book doesn't earn Adichie a coveted place in the hearts of the Nigerian People, I don't know what could.  It's just GOT to be a beloved classic for them, although only just published in 2007.  Whereas Purple Hibiscus felt very contained (which was entirely appropriate for the subject matter), this book makes you feel as though everyone in it is in danger of floating free of their physical moorings.  Set in the 1960s at the cusp of a bloody civil war that will hopefully birth the strong new nation of Biafra, this book is expansive and brilliant and Shakespearean, and based on history.  The main gist is that the Igbo people secede publicly amid rampant government corruption.  As always, the manipulative forces of Colonialism and foreign interests in the oil-rich nation are working behind the scenes.  These forces that could have been used for good, end up, as they most often do, costing a lot of innocent lives in the interest of greed.  With all of these government entities and armies, you would think that this book would be a bit cold, a bit dry.  But to the contrary, it's very, very intimate.  Many of the village people are good, desperately poor and naive, and want to believe that their government will come through for them finally.  They rally to the cause armed with only their ideals and the hope of a better life.  Our main characters, many of whom are Igbo,  are so fully developed that they seem real.  We have two Igbo sisters, Olanna and Kainene, and their men, and the houseboy, Ugwu.  Time and place are vividly brought to life, including a few Ex Pats and lots of locals, but the two characters who really become fully alive are beautiful Olanna and the innocent houseboy Ugwu.  They grow and develop along with the story, which will land you in the villages, in the towns, in the ragtag Biafran army where they have carved rifles out of wood, in the kitchens where Jolof rice is prepared, in the side yard where the butterflies flit, and in the back hall where Olanna's future mother in-law is literally using tribal witchcraft against her.  Whereas the first book was just dark for me, this book also has a lot of hope and light in it.  A lot of ideals and resourcefulness and things to admire.  This was a great history lesson for me too.  I had heard of the country of Biafra before, but if you had asked me to tell you where it was, I would not have known, and would have replied, "Somewhere in Africa."  Now I could never forget!