User Reviews

Reviews by Auntie Anne.
Cleopatra: A Life
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In Stacy Schiff's outstanding bestselling biography of the famous Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra emerges as a woman who bedazzled her admirers not as a devastatingly beautiful temptress, but as an intelligent, well educated, multi-lingual power broker.  Schiff admits that "there is not universal agreement on most of even the basic details of Cleopatra's life.  So much of this history is simply not known."  She does an excellent job of researching the reputable historians accounts to piece together a very credible account of Cleopatra's life and times. Discarding the myths and fantastic fiction of Shakespeare and Hollywood, the reader sees a clear picture of a very powerful, wealthy Egyptian female ruler who used her intelligence, charisma and politial acumen to parley political deals and military alliances with those who would best serve her and her country's needs - the Romans. Cleopatra: A Life is definitely not a beach read, and commands every ounce of your attention.  You will find yourself running to the dictionary to look up words you'd never heard before.  But the history is fascinating and well worth the time and effort spent in the reading of it.  As one critic noted, "Ancient Egypt never goes out of style." (Margaret Flanagan) 
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
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Alice Hoffman brilliantly merges the lives of four brave, passionate and fiercely strong Jewish women in the last months of Masada, a mountain fortress in the Judean desert in 70 C.E.  Yael's mother died giving birth to her, and her father, an expert assassin, blamed her for his wife's death.  Reka's grandsons witnessed their mother being brutally raped and murdered by Roman soldiers.  She protects them like a mother lion.  Shirah, known as the Witch of Moab, is well-versed in ancient magic and medicine, and will go to any lengths to protect her loved ones.  Aziza, Shirah's daughter, was raised as a boy, to become a fearless warrior, fighting for her people and her beliefs.

All four women traveled across the Judean desert to escape the brutality of the Romans, to the protection and shelter of Masada, the great mountainside palace and fortress built by King Herod in 31 B.C.E. At Masada, they were the dovekeepers, tending to the doves in the three dovecotes there.  They also cared for each other and their children.  The four women formed a wall of solidarity against unimaginable hardship and strife.

In the Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman expertly weaves the story of these four women while instilling the history of this important time in Jewish history with rich detail and language, building up events to the incredible climax.  I could not put this book down and it continues to haunt me now that I'm finished.
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
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It was the summer of 1880 in Paris, 10 years after France's crippling defeat in the Prussian war.  Even though France was finally recovering from a serious economic depression, the devastating psychological effect of the war could still be felt.  Parisian energy rebounded, however, when workers were given Sundays off.  A new society emerged - la vie moderne - and cafes, caberets, dance halls, and theaters all flourished.  The building of railroad lines to the countryside allowed Parisians to enjoy their Sundays in the enchanting riverside villages west of Paris.

A small group of artists, called Impressionists, had discovered the new engergy and modern individualism as well.  Breaking away from the classic artistic traditions of form and line, with scenes from the Bible or history as inspiration, the Impressionists left their studios to paint "La vie moderne" as they saw it and lived it.  Boldly using feathery touches of unblended color in textural brushstrokes, they painted scenes from the caberets, dance halls, theaters and Sunday boaters and picnicers.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir was one such painter.

The Impressionists met with much criticism, since their technique was such a radical break with the classic artists.  One such critic threw down the gauntlet by saying "the Impressionists are inferior to what they undertake.  The man of genius has not arisen."  August Renoir picked up the gauntlet and created a work of true genius - "Luncheon of the Boating Party."

Susan Vreeland, the author, has given the reader a wonderful fictional accounting of the creation of this masterpiece by Renoir.  Renoir met with almost insurmountable obstacles.  He had only eight weeks of Sundays to paint it on the terrace of La Maison Fournaise at Chatou before he would lose the good summer light.  He was totally broke but somehow had to pay for the huge canvas, paints, fees for 14 models and rent for the terrace each Sunday.  When he began working on the painting his right arm was broken, so he painted with his left.  Crippling rheumatoid arthritis was beginning to take its toll on his fingers. Woven throughout the book are the personal stories of the 14 people who are in the painting.  Their colorful stories paint their own picture of la vie moderne in Paris - an actress, a mime, a journalist, an adventurer, a singer-flower seller, an art collector, a poet, a boatman, a baron, a yachtsman-painter.  Vreeland gives us a good taste of the conflicts and hedonism of the era, as well as the anguish and the joy, without which the Impressionists would have no inspiration.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
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Having been awarded a scholarship to study architecture at the Ecole Speciale in Paris in 1937 was no small feat for Andras Levi, a poor Hungarian-Jew from the small Hungarian town of Konyar.  He arrived from Budapest with only a single suitcase and a mysterious letter he had promised to deliver to a C. Morgenstern.  He makes friends with some fellow Jewish students, allying with them against increasing Nazi threats.  He falls in love with C. Morgenstern - Klara - a beautiful Hungarian ballet instructor nine years his senior with a hauntingly dark past. With war threatening, Andras is forced to return to Hungary and Klara insists on coming with him.  Andras and his two brothers find themselves pawns in the Nazi chess game of using Hungary to advance their invasion of Russia, sent out in work details for months at a time in labor camps that were little more than concentration camps.  By the autumn of 1939, all of Europe has erupted in the full-blown catastophe of World War II.  Even Hungary, thinking themselves safe in allying with Germany, has been invaded by the Nazis. As in Dr. Zhivago, lovers Andras and Klara cannot escape the horrors of war, but find courage in their love for each other and in their families.

I must admit that I balked a bit at reading a 600 page novel that appeared to be yet another novel about World War II.  I was surprised to find myself unable to put it down, taken in by the grandeur of Paris opera houses and the Parisian architecture.  Andras' simple yet close family ties in Hungary contrasting with his new life in Paris as student, friend and lover was beautifully portrayed by the author, Julie Orringer. As the inevitable history unfolded with the characters caught up in it, I found myself totally absorbed and caring very much about how they would survive the war.  The Invisible Bridge is a novel of epic proportions but so well written that it felt intimate.
Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason
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In 1944, at the age of 23, Marshall Stone was a cocky young U.S. Army pilot with nine successful missions to brag about when his B-17 bomber was shot down in a Belgian field, near the French border.  With German troops closing in to capture him and his fellow downed crewmates, he fled into the nearby woods. Miraculously, he was found right away by nearby villagers who hid him from the Germans.  The people who helped him were part of a network of French citizens, from all walks of life, who formed the Resistance, sheltering and moving downed Allied airmen through covert routes to return them to their airbases in England.  To these brave people Marshall owed his life.
 
Forty years later, newly widowed and retired, Marshall Stone returned to that crash site in Belgium.  The overwhelming memories from that experience drove him to stay in France and try to find the people who helped him, especially a vivacious young girl in a blue beret.  In his odyssey, he finds many of those people, all of whom had their own terrifying experiences during the war.  But none more horrific than the story of the young French girl who helped him and so many other airmen to escape the German soldiers.  His journey becomes a life-changing experience, helping him to find closure and a second chance at life.
 
Based on the true wartime experiences of her late father-in-law, author Bobbie Ann Mason writes a very authentic account of the French Resistance during WWII. The details and vivid narratives bring history alive for the reader.