Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

gustavWhat I thought:

I am still trying to collect my thoughts on this book. I don’t actually give star ratings on my blog, as I have often found that after reflecting on a book for a few days (even weeks or months) my view changes (some become books that I have forgotten so easily, and others that I didn’t initially think were utterly fantastic can refuse to let me go and I find myself thinking about them long after the last page was turned). So, now to my point: while reading this book, I could easily have awarded anywhere between 2.5 and 5 stars depending on which point in the book I was at. A quandary indeed.

The Gustav Sonata is set in Switzerland and spans 60 years, starting in the years after WW2. Split into 3 parts (like a sonata) it follows first two young boys, Gustav and Anton (one Christian, one Jewish), and their blossoming friendship, then going back 10 years the book takes on Gustav’s parents relationship and we discover the reasons for Gustav’s mother’s aloofness towards her son, and finally, we are taken a long way forward in time to when the boys are grown up.

Gustav’s story is one of loneliness and longing. A dead father and a distant mother, with whom he spends his life trying to make love him, and his need to please everyone around him, usually for nothing in return, is incredibly sad. I had a profound sense of Gustav’s isolation and yearning for acceptance. I particularly liked the second part, however, which focused on Gustav’s parents and his father’s part in saving Jews, which his mother Emilie blames his death on. This gave me more of an insight into Switzerland’s part (or non-part) in the war, and one I would like to know a lot more about. As a country, it may not have been involved, but its people still lived in fear of being dragged into it and its repercussions have reverberated since.

I’m not sure how I would sum this book up if I’m honest. There were themes of war, friendship, love, mental health, homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, loneliness and hope. It was harrowing but never sentimental.  It was, ultimately I believe, a story of the issues of identity and its consequences.

Verdict:

I loved this book and was moved by it, and yet there were parts that left me strangely cold. The boys, as adults, seemed hardly to have matured at all which is a shame and in terms of character development, I didn’t feel there really was any. Or perhaps that was the point? The blurb talks about the book being about friendship but I found it very one-sided, and never really felt the friendship in maybe the way I was intended to. That said, I would still highly recommend this book: Rose Tremain is a fantastic writer.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

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A Bookish Tour of Paris (Part 1)

Pain au chocolat for breakfast! YUM!

Ooh là là…

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was going to Paris for 4 days as  present for my 40th birthday (last year): I’m back now after having had the most fantastic time and wanted to share with you some of my trip as there are so many lovely bookish landmarks in Paris:

Mr Whisperer and I stayed in a gorgeous little Parisien appartment in Bastille right next to a patiserie where we got pain au chocolats and croissants each morning to go with our coffee overlooking  a little courtyard. Although we were only a couple of minutes walk from the metro we decided to spend our few days there cycling round Paris instead. Cycling is THE ONLY way to see Paris! You get to see all the bits you don’t travelling by metro and places that you would never have time to see all on foot. It was so easy to get around and we came across places we wouldn’t normally have this way. To top it all it was so much fun!

The first day we went on an organised cycle tour with Bike About Tours which took us to places more off the beaten track (rather than the big well known sites that we can all get to on our own). I can highly recommend this company if you go to Paris.

 

 

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The first place we stopped on the tour was the Jewish memorial in Le Marais which I was really keen to see as I had read Sarah’s Key only last year. This is part of The Roundup and we stopped at a boys school where 400 Jewish children were forceably taken and sent to the camps.

Amber our tour guide next to the wall of names of those who had helped hide or save Jewish people in France in WW2

I really enjoyed Sarah’s Key (particulalry the historical part of the story) as I hadn’t heard of The Roundup before then. I also watched the film that came out at the end of last year which I can highly recommend too.

 

  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The next part of the tour took us to Victor Hugo’s house which is part of Places des Voges. It was once a royal residence and is now split into homes which hardly ever come onto the market (apart from one about 6 years ago for 25.5 million Euros!). We didn’t actually go into the house (although you can) but it was exciting for me to see the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (neither of which I have read yet although both are on my radar).

Victor Hugo's house

 

  The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola

We then went on to an area of Paris called Les Halles which used to host the biggest and oldest market in Paris. The market is the setting for Zola’s book The Belly of Paris. It doesn’t exist in the same place anymore (in fact it is now just a busy junction with shops and fast food places) but what I did find interesting is the poison shop that still remains all these years later. The market was rife with the pitter-patter of tiny paws so there was a shop selling rat poison right next to the market which still has the stuffed bodies of rats from 1925 hanging in the window.

 

Cute!!

 

  Keep a lookout for the next stops on the bookish tour of Paris – coming soon 🙂

 

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

In three words:

Charming, family, WW1

 

 

What I thought:

I had seen a few reviews of this book recently as it is a newly re-published book by Persophone so when I caught sight of this small, battered and stained copy languishing on the shelves of my library (also apparantly neglected as it has only been checked out twice in four years) I knew it had to come home with me.

What a wonderful and charming book this is. Written in 1932, Greenbanks tells the story of the Ashton family spanning from around 1910 to 1925. It is centered around the house, Greenbanks, in the Lancashire village of Elton, and revolves mainly around Louisa Ashton, Mother and Grandmother. Louisa has five (very different) children who have all started to make their own way in the world too and so Louisa dotes on her 4 year old Granddaughter, Rachel. Greenbanks may be a lovely, beautifully written book about a family in a grand old house but there is plenty of room for sibling rivalry, illegitimate births, divorce, tyranical fathers and heartache. In fact all these are done so well that I was in awe of how well Whipple understood human emotion such as depression, jealousy, shame and love.

The book is set at during the early part of the last century when ideas and ideals are shifting and in particular Whipple explores the changing roles of women at this time. Louisa is the gentle, kind head of Greenbanks (after her philandering husband dies) but her daughters are exploring new territories that are still thought of as a huge embarassment to the gossiping folks of Elton. Daughters Letty and Laura both carving out new paths for themselves and lodger Kate Barlow still lives the shame and stigma of having an illegitimate child all those years ago. Granddaughter Rachel, much to her Father Ambrose’s profound disappointment, is intelligent and is desperate to continue her studies at University when she grows up, but Ambrose wants a dutiful daughter who will greet him at the door and “take his hat”.

The character of Ambrose Harding is actually one of my favourite characters despite his prigishness and I found him (unintentionally on his part) very amusing:  he is so old-fashioned and is constantly baffled as to why people don’t behave the way he expects and wants them to.

 

“And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much.”

 

“That’s what this modern education did for them. These modern girls, smoking, riding motor-bicycles, flying airplanes, breaking speed records; they would do anything for notice. What else could it be for? Men did these things for the love of them, to try them out, or to advance knowledge, experience, but women did them for notice, just to get into the papers, to be made a fuss of.”

 

The quotes made me laugh, especially when I think of how times have changed now. But even with Ambroses sexist rants I could still sympathise with him to a degree as he was born in an age where men were head of the house and no one (especially a wife or daughter) would ever question him. His three other children (all boys) were a huge disappointment to him also as they didn’t follow the direction he wanted them to follow and went their own way; Ambrose felt unloved and and couldn’t understand why. Such a brilliantly drawn character.

A final quote that made me laugh (because it could have been me saying it) Iwas when Letty who in frustration cries:

 

“”Is there something wrong with me?” she asked in alarm. “This is no more than other women have to put up with. Why don’t I like housekeeping?””

 

Verdict: I highly recommend this gorgeous book. Perfect for a Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea (or in the bath, or in the postoffice queue….pretty much anywhere really). Loved it!

 

  Have you read anything by Whipple? Which others do you recommend?

Day 11 – A book that made me cry

  It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to…

I have a confession to make: I cry at adverts (I’m talking about ones that are about animal rescue or child abuse, not shake ‘n vac or oven chips!). It’s harder to make me cry at a book, however, but when one does make me cry it’s because the author has made me care. There are a few books that have made me wipe a tear from the corner of my eye, but only the odd one that has made me openly weep. One that almost made this post was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I remember reading this on a sunlounger at a villa we stayed at in Gozo (an island belonging to Malta); this was the first Picoult I had read so I wasn’t familiar with her style of throwing a twist in at the end of the book at that time. What happened in the epilogue took me by such surprise that it completely threw me – I had come to care about the characters so much and I hadn’t seen the ending coming at all 😦

However, the book I have chosen is one that broke my heart when I read it. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is narrated by Death and follows a young girl in Germany in WW2 as she is sent to live with strangers: the characters in this book are genuinely endearing and when the ending hits you, it will hit you with the force of a freight train. I sobbed my heart out! We read this book for my book group years ago and every single person (bar one) loved it and most admitted to shedding a tear. I remember walking around in a daze for days afterwards as I tried to come to terms with the impact it had had on me. If you don’t so much as get a lump in your throat upon finishing this book, I’m afraid to say you just may have a heart of stone. Fact.

 

 

  Which books have had you weeping like a newborn?

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

In three words:

Round-up, Paris, WW2

 

What I thought:

Before reading this book I knew nothing (nor had I even heard of) The Round Up in France in 1942. On 16th July of that year, the French police dragged over 13,000 Jews from their beds and marched them to the Vel D’Hiv (a sports stadium) in Paris where they were crammed together and left with no food, water or toilet facilities for days on end. People fell ill and died in front of the families and thousands of strangers and were left humiliated at having to go to the toilet where they stood in the cramped conditions. Days later, these same Jews were marched (paraded down through the streets of Paris) on to holding camps before being separated into men, women and children (mothers torn from screaming, crying children) and taken on to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Now my little history lesson is over, what I loved most about this book was finding out about such a little know part of the holocaust – even more shocking because it was these families own countrymen who sent them to their deaths, not the Nazis.

Sarah’s Key is about a young girl of 10 years old who, on the morning she is awoken from her bed by the police to take her to the Vel D’Hiv, locks her 3 year old brother in a cupboard in the house, slipping the key deep into her pocket, and promises to come back for him when they are allowed to go free (which she suspects will only be a few hours). Interwoven between this little girls horrific story as the realisation hits her that she isn’t going home and that her brother is trapped alone in a black cupboard that he can’t get out of, and the story of Julia, an American woman who has lived in Paris with her French husband and daughter for the last twenty years. When Julia and her family move into a renovated house in Paris, she becomes aware of a Jewish family who once lived there and were taken during The Round Up in 1942 and she becomes obsessed with finding out more.

The author herself says that this isn’t intended to be a work of historical fiction, but a tribute to the children of vel D’Hiv, however it was the historical element that I found most compelling and what carried me through the pages. While this is undoubtebly a good book and one I looked forward to picking up, I did find the ‘modern day’ story a little contrived and even clichéd at the end (in fact, I’m pretty sure a groan escaped my lips).

Verdict: I would recommend this book as it is well worth reading about, but I have to say that had the story of the Round Up not been such fascinating (and shocking) reading for me, the book in terms of any literary merit was only pretty average.

  Have you read this book or seen the film? (I really want to see it)

  Which other books about the holocaust do you recommend?

 

Book Review: Far To Go by Alison Pick

In three words:

Moving, powerful, emotional

 

What I thought:

Once in a while a book comes along that unexpectidly blows you away. This is that book.

Far to Go is set in Czechoslovaki in 1938, just before the outbreak of WW2. Pavel and Anneliese Bauer live with their 5 year old son, Pepik, in a suburban appartment in the northern region of Sudetenland. They own a factory, they have money, enjoy nights in at the theatre and employ a live-in nanny, Marta, to look after their son. They have a life – a good one – that is until the Nazi occupation and annexation of their homeland.

What I found really worked with this book is that we were shown an ordinary family – secular Jews in fact – which I believe added to the confusion of why they were being persecuted; they were just like their friends, their neighbours, their colleagues; they celebrated Christmas, they didn’t follow the customs of the Jewish faith. The fact that they were secular Jews also allowed the author (and reader) to try to understand and question how the war would impact their lives – while Anneliese was eager to shed thier history, Pavel found himself becoming increasingly fervent and proud of his heritige. Another person struggling with her own questions and feelings was Marta the nanny who, despite not being Jewish herself, had to listen to gossip and speculation about the family she lived with and loved and even horrified herself by randomly thinking comments like “dirty Jew” in her head. Marta is really the central character in Far To Go and her actions and decisions have repercussions on the Bauer family that she would have never seen coming; but again we are left to question – what would we have done?

Far To Go deals with a period of history that I was not so familiar with: Czechoslovakia before the war. The characters we are walking hand in hand with through the pages have no idea what is coming:  they’ve never had cause to distrust or suspect their best friends before, they don’t understand why they have to give up their businesses and livelihoods, they don’t see  why they should have to leave their homes and they certainly have never heard of death camps before. This is all to come; this is the future and they are living in ignorance of what awaits them.

Once Pavel and Anneliese  have relented and moved to Prague (while they still can) they become increasingly aware that they have to send Pepik away on the Kindertransport to a family in the UK to look after him “just for a few weeks or months”.  The scenes on the platform are heartbreaking. The gentleness of the narritive and the lack of melodrama in Far To Go doesn’t mean that these aren’t some of the most emotionally powerful pages I have ever read. I don’t have children and yet to put myself squarely in the book with those parents at that moment just about broke my heart; it’s  almost beyond comprehension. I could see their little faces at the window, alone and not understanding why they were being sent away.

There is no room for flowery prose in this book; it’s sparse and no words are wasted. The empathy I felt for each person in this book, however, was so palpable I could almost taste it – it’s a gifted writer who can make a reader feel as they do here without relying on sensationalism and melodrama. You will question every one of the characters actions; you will ache for them, you will hope for them knowing that there is no hope, you will close the book and know that they were just a few people out of 6 million. Six million!

Verdict: Wow. Just wow. Highly, highly recommended.

(source: I received this book for review from Headline Review)