Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

Book Review: The Wild Vine

Have you ever heard of the Norton grape? I had, but I knew nothing of its history. I only knew that there are a few Michigan wineries that grow it and produce wine made from Norton grapes. But I was about to become a lot more read on the history of the Norton.

The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman

The Wild Vine, by Todd Kliman

Kliman tells the story of the discovery of the Norton grape, a hybrid created in the 1820s by Dr. Daniel Norton. It is special because it can withstand the humidity and punishing storms of Virginia and Missouri, not succumbing to the rot that so many European wine grapes do. It allows Americans, for the first time, to believe that the United States can produce wine to rival Europe.

The Norton grape almost disappeared entirely during Prohibition, when wine growers were forced in large numbers to pull up their vineyards or face the wrath of government agents. When Prohibition ended, winemakers in the East were not quick to rush back to their former occupations, and by the time new wineries were created in Virginia, the Norton was seemingly nowhere to be found. In the 1970s, against all odds, Dennis Horton discovers that some bootleggers have a small patch of Norton growing, now almost wild in Missouri. He brings it home to Virginia.

Now, thanks for a few dedicated winegrowers, Norton has made a small comeback and is being produced again. Kliman’s book documents the history of the grape, its near extinction, and its remarkable comeback. This book marries two of my favorite subjects – History and Wine. His writing style will have you rooting for the underdog, the little grape that could… You’ll have to be on the lookout for this book, and a Norton wine!

One Giant Book Post!

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  Mostly audiobooks when I’m out walking, plus I’ve been spending more time alone, so I seem to be going through books twice as quickly lately!  Rather than remain hopelessly behind on reviewing, I’ll just do a couple big reviews of my last few months of books!  If this doesn’t give some idea of the varied tastes I have in books, I don’t know what would… Without further ado, in alphabetical order…

The Book of Aron – Jim Shepard

This is the story of a young Jewish boy growing up and losing his family in the Jewish ghetto of a city in Poland during World War II.  Aron eventually ends up in the orphanage of Janusz Korczak, who was a real man in Polish history.  Korczak was a pediatrician who advocated for the rights of children, and took care of thousands of children over the years.  He even had a radio program that popularized the rights of children.  Through Aron’s eyes, Janusz Korczak’s orphanage comes alive, showing the reader the brutality of trying to survive in the ghetto, starving and with few supplies.

The book comes to the expected, heartbreaking end, but unfortunately it fell short for me in creating the attachment to the characters in the novel.  The development was lacking, so much that each tragedy did not stir the emotion that should be present under the circumstances.  3 stars.

Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex  – Hephzibah Anderson

After a break up leaves her reeling, the author decides she is going to embark on a one year journey of celibacy. Only intercourse is off limits, but its absence seems like the gigantic elephant in the room as she navigates dates, weddings, re-unions with old friends, and conference socials. She is witty and funny, and her tale serves to remind the reader that perhaps something important has been lost in our “hook up and hang out” culture. Is there more to love and relationships than sex? She learns that there is.  4 stars.

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral – Mary Doria Russell

This book is much different than the other I have read by Mary Doria Russell, which have been sci-fi. This one is about Doc Holliday, of The Shootout at the OK Corral fame. Doria Russell uses historical information and a bit of lore to create a historical novel about the last few years of Holliday’s young life, before he died alone of tuberculosis in Colorado. The writing keeps the reader intrigued as she weaves the tale of Holliday, the Earps and the McLaurys, and how their paths came together that fateful day in a vacant lot on the main street of Tombstone. 5 stars.

In the Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson

I wanted to like this book – I have enjoyed several other of Larson’s books. Perhaps the subject matter just wasn’t as intriguing, and I struggled through it. This book tells the story of the life of William Dodd, most particularly during the four years (1933 to 1937) that he was the American Ambassador to Germany in Berlin. During that time, the Nazi Party was coming to power, anti-Semitism was taking off, and Germany more and more seemed on the brink of starting a war, both within its borders and outside. Dodd was out of his element, a history professor with no diplomatic experience, chosen only after several others turned down the job.

The book is well researched and well written, but there’s too much emphasis on the mundane details of the life of a diplomat, as well as the probable sexual dalliances of Dodd’s daughter Martha. It just didn’t measure up for me… 2 stars

Last Chance Saloon – Marian Keyes

A light-hearted chick lit novel about three friends from Ireland who are living in London.  Trying to find love and happily ever after, amid the typical heartaches that befall us all.  A quick read, without any deep revelations, but it does have a few twists and turns to keep things interesting.  3 stars.

Mink River – Brian Doyle

A rambling novel of life among characters in an imaginary small town in Oregon, bounded on four sides by water. An old doctor who helps people who can’t afford it, a Public Works employee who is able to feel people’s pain, a Native American woman who marries an Irish immigrant, and a policeman who doesn’t think he can do the job anymore; they are just some of the stories that the narrator weaves effortlessly together. Flying above all of them is a talking crow named Moses. Their lives come together in unexpected ways and make you realize that none of us have it easy, and you don’t necessarily understand what is happening in anybody else’s world. 4 stars.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey – Rinker Buck

What makes a man decide that he should purchase a covered wagon and 3 mules, and set off on an adventure to retrace the path of the Oregon Trail, from Missouri to Oregon? Who knows, but Rinker Buck did, and the result is a fascinating book about his experience. From figuring out how much weight to carry, to getting swindled by the Amish craftsmen who outfit his journey, to runaway mules, to the kindness of hundreds of ordinary people that he meets along the way, his tale weaves its way into your heart as he makes his way across the country. Along the way, he comes to terms with his relationship with his late father, along with his caring but eccentric brother who joins him on his journey. 5 stars.

Stella Bain- Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve is known for her descriptive novels of the lives of women – usually women who are experiencing times of turmoil. This book is no different. Stella Bain is the story of its namesake, a female nurse and ambulance driver working on the French front lines during World War I. She is found with only injuries to her feet, but suffering from amnesia. Her quest to discover her true identity leads her to London, where a doctor and his wife take her in and help her. The result is a love story with an unexpected twist, as Stella’s mind reveals who she is over the course of the novel. 4 stars.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

This was a re-read for me; it has been several years since the last time I picked it up.  Simply put, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest novels ever written.  Harper Lee poignantly weaves the stories of two children growing up during the Great Depression in the Deep South where racism is still very much a part of life.  The children, Scout and Gem, learn their morals and principles from a host of characters, including their neighbors, their domestic servant Calpurnia, and most of all, from their widower father, a lawyer who defends a black man who is facing the charge of murder of a white woman.  Atticus Finch is a man we can all emulate.  5 stars.

The Wild Truth – Carine McCandless

24 years ago, in 1992, Chris McCandless died of starvation in the remote Alaskan wilderness. When his body was discovered in an old bus turned back-country shelter, people around the world speculated about why such a bright, young man with good prospects for his future would walk away from his life and all material comforts to die alone in Alaska. His parents portrayed themselves as a close-knit, loving family, but his sister Carine McCandless decided she needed to set the record straight. Her book shows a family life rife with chaos and abuse, and explains what she believes were Chris’ reasons for wanting a complete break from his family and society. Her portrait of her childhood is stark, and probably not too far off from what many children experience. 3 stars.


So that’s most of my reading of late.  I have a few more books to catch up on, but that will keep until another post!



Book Review: The Book Thief

I read a lot of good books. But rarely does a book come along that moves me; that unsettles me; that makes me ponder the vast chasm that exists between the good in this world and the evil. A book that will stay with me long after I finish the last page and close the back cover. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak is such a book.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl given up into the foster care system for unsaid reasons just before the start of World War II. She travels with her mother and young brother to the foster care agency – and her ill brother dies enroute. At the burial she picks up a book the gravedigger has dropped, and it becomes one of her few treasured possessions. When her mother drops her off – her last tie to family is severed forever.

Liesel finds herself in the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a largely uneducated and coarse couple who could teach us all a thing or two about love. Even when faced with indescribable danger, they do the moral thing – they harbor a Jew. The story of Liesel’s upbringing in the face of such adversity shows the reader that even in such situations, it is possible to respect, to forge deep friendships, and to love.

But most importantly, she learns the power of words. That they can be used for good or for evil – that they can change the world and your reality.  These words left me turning page after page, long after I should have turned out the light each night.  “I am haunted by humans,” – I was changed by these words.

Book Review: Unbroken

I’ve read quite a bit about World War II, but had not heard the story of Louis Zamperini until Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken hit the shelves in 2010. Louie, as he was known to his family and friends, was a record breaking runner, an Olympic athlete turned B-24 Liberator bombardier.

The book follows Louie through his turbulent childhood, as he gets in all sorts of trouble because he’s not a rule follower. It details his brother’s successful attempt to get him to settle down with running, giving Louie something to focus his energy and frustration. He ends up being such a good runner that he qualifies for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, at an age where runners have not yet reached their peak.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

And then along comes the War. Louie enlists and is sent to train as a bombardier as a part of a B-24 crew. He achieves glory as a part of a bombing raid over mainland Japan, the first since Doolittle’s Raiders bombed Japan in 1942. Despite the severe damage their plane suffered, they managed to make it back to base. However, one of the crew died, several were seriously injured, and their plane was too damaged to fly again.

After heading back to Hawaii, the remaining crew were assigned a new plane – a known lemon, and several unseasoned crewmates. On their very first flight in the new plane Green Hornet, a rescue mission, they crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Three men survived and were able to get into two rafts with very few provisions. There they drifted for 47 days, before Louie and his pilot were picked up by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in a series of brutal Japanese labor camps.

Any one of the hardships that Louie endured likely would have killed other men, or driven them insane. 47 days floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, trying to cobble together enough sustenance by fishing and collecting rainwater. Years in Japanese POW camps, forced to perform hard labor while facing starvation and disease. Frequent beatings and psychological torture…

The book showed the reader in vivid detail what it was like to live as a Japanese Prisoner of War. It makes it clear why so many veterans did not want to talk about their experience in the war. After Louie returned home, he struggled with PTSD and alcoholism – he credited a commitment to God for his climb back up from rock bottom. Although he had not been religious before the war, he made a promise to commit his life to God, if only He would deliver him safety from the raft.

This book is a difficult read – it is graphic, violent and raw. It will make you angry and rip your heart out. I cried more than once and at times audibly gasped. But it is necessary – to understand that war is not a decision to be taken lightly. To understand that when we ask people to give their lives for a cause, they have often done so even if they come home alive. To hopefully one day break the cycle of conflict.  To one day get to “never again.”


Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Let me say right now, that I don’t always choose disaster books. The last book I reviewed was a light hearted memoir about the Appalachian Trail after all! But I get it – I do choose a lot of disaster books. I consider this due to my love for all things historical, and well, disasters do make good history. At any rate…

Erik Larson has made a name for himself with several books on famous American tragedies; this book dives into the 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania during World War I by a German U-boat with several hundred Americans on board.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

The Lusitania disaster was a perfect storm of disasters, and Larson expertly details the circumstances leading up to its sinking. He meticulously researched records of the British admiralty, discovering just how much they knew about the movements of U-20 off the coast of Ireland in the days and hours leading up to the disaster.  He tells the stories of the passengers aboard, including tales of the 2nd and 3rd class passengers rather than just the rich and famous. He spins the stories in a way that leaves the reader hanging until the final moments about who lived and who died.

And he tells the story of the U-boat captain, living in the cramped, hot conditions of a submarine, ultimately more concerned about the tonnage that he could sink than the lives of over 1,000 non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children.

I like Larson’s writing style. He switches back and forth effortlessly among the three perspectives; the Lusitania, U-20, and the British Admiralty. He tells the story chronologically, building suspense and a sense of foreboding. You know the ship will go down – that’s in the history books, but who will make it?

And after the sinking, the mistakes don’t end. There are all those hundreds of lives that probably could have been saved, if only other ships had been dispatched right away. If only others hadn’t turned around, thinking it might be a German trap. If only…

It has been over one hundred years since the sinking of the Lusitania. Although the heyday of ocean liner travel is long over, there are still elements of the story that are very relevant. How many times have governments allowed innocent civilians to die because they didn’t want to reveal what they know and how they know it?

Dead Wake was a very worthwhile read – I was hooked the whole way through…

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson is a humor author. More precisely, he is a baby boomer who first came into my consciousness when my book club read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about Bryson’s Midwest upbringing in the 1950s and 60s. It is laugh out loud funny, poking fun at the times, and reliving for his contemporaries the novelty of such innovations as the frozen dinner, and playing in the clouds of pesticide left behind by mosquito spray trucks.

A Walk in the Woods, while not as whimsical, still incorporates a healthy dose of humor as he tells the story of his decision to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that he has no experience thru-hiking, or backpacking, or even doing much day hiking or camping. I consider it the pre-cursor to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, only without the drug addiction and extremely self-destructive behavior. But Bryson has one thing that Strayed does not – a healthy (and amusing) fear of bears.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

The book alternates between telling the history of the Appalachian Trail; it conception, its development, its increase in popularity over the years, and Bryson and his childhood friend Katz’s long hike. He revels in details that include savoring a soda after a week in the woods, to Katz’s emotional outbursts that result in large portions of their rations being hurtled off the sides of mountains. He also goes into great detail on various bear calamities throughout the United States, providing a who’s who of bear casualties over the last several dozen years.

While reading, you can feel the weight of the pack on your back as you trudge along with Bryson and Katz, up and down hills, over stony trails, and finally collapsing in camp at the end of the night. At which point you sleep soundly… unless you can hear what you think is a bear. He also expresses the joy of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and the absolute peace in the woods. Any hiker can likely relate to these feelings.

A Walk in the Woods is a quick read – and I enjoyed the serious historical facts that complemented the tale of their excursion. The only part I disliked was when he retold the generalizations about the residents who were removed from Shenandoah National Park, describing them as uneducated and barely functional poor people who were far better off once the government swooped in to relocate them and save the day. But given that this book was written 20 years ago, before the true story was likely known, I’m willing to forgive him for the error.

The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you want to get a sense of what thru-hiking would really be like if you are not a serious distance hiker and camper. Just don’t feed the bears.