Book Review ~ Those Who Saved Us by Jenna Blum

We choose to read books for many reasons.  Sometimes the cover art speaks to us from the shelves of a local library or book store and we feel the need to take that book home.  We may chose our books based on reviews  read in Bookmarks Magazine, the book review section of the local newspaper or even because we read a fabulous review here on Planet Books.  LOL!  Well I chose to read Jenna Blum’s haunting novel, Those Who Saved Us, for a fairly unique reason.  The main character has the same last name as I had till I got married in 2004. 

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Those Who Saved Us is a story about a woman named Anna who finds the Nazis invading all aspects of her hometown of Weimar, Germany and putting it on the map due to its geographical relation to Buchenwald concentration camp.  Anna’s father is a terrible parental figure, making Anna’s life miserable and difficult as her sole purpose becomes the huge job of handling every need of his and their home.  She finds relief in the friendship with “The Good Doktor”, Max Stern, and eventually the forbidden love that grows out of their chess games and conversations.  Max is a Jew and the risk of even talking with him is deadly.  Eventually, fear for Max’s life due to his association with The Resistance pushes Anna into action and she hides him in the walls of his father’s house.  Of course, as happened all over Europe in the late 30’s and early 40’s, Max is discovered by Anna’s father and shipped off to the Gestapo.  This is the catalyst for Anna and she quickly leaves her childhood home and becomes apprentice to a local baker and spy for The Resistance. 

Well folks, that is just the beginning of this enrapturing and memorable book.  The book jumps from WWII Germany to mid’90’s Minnesota and back again.  In Minnesota, Anna is an elderly, secret filled woman who has just lost her husband and has a stressed relationship with her middle-aged daughter Trudy.  Trudy is a professor of German history at a university in Minneapolis.  She joins a fellow professor on a project that finds her locating Germans in the area who survived WWII in Germany by any means possible and recording their stories.  Little does she know what one of her interviews will disclose about her own mysterious path and the ways her mother made it possible for the two of them to survive during one of this planets most hellish periods.

The drama and stories that emerge from Those Who Saved Us will stay with me forever.  I have said before that I think it is very important for these historical fiction novels to find a voice.  They may be fiction but they are based on fact and in the case of Those Who Saved Us, Jenna Blum completed a great amount of research thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. 

Those Who Saved Us reads like a drama and horror story at times but provides a lesson in history and how you can never truly escape your past.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the historical fiction genre but warn you that there are some stories within that will cause your jaw to drop and your stomach to turn. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

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Book Review ~ The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

the-school-of-essential-ingredientsSummary ~ The School of Essential Ingredientsby Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her students’ lives. One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian’s food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen.

Having recently re-located back to the DC area and wanting to create a book club with my friends, I thought that The School of Essential Ingredients would be the perfect first selection.  I think I hit the nail on the head folks!  Lit & The City ladies, what say you?  What a wonderful, fun, interesting, educational and cozy book author Erica Bauermeister has gifted the reading and cooking community with. 

The core of the story is about eight people coming together to take a cooking class at a local restaurant in (I think Seattle) the Pacific Northwest under the instruction of the restaurant owner and head chef, Lillian.  What we get when these people come together from all different backgrounds for one common goal, to cook, is nothing short of a wonderful, memorable and inspirational book.  There’s Helen and Carl, a married couple in their sixties or so, who though they have faced crisis in their marriage are stronger for it and have rekindled their romance.  The observations they make to each other about their fellow classmates are made from experience.  There’s Chloe, who at first is a lost soul looking for romance and a home in the wrong places but then finds love and family where she least expects it.  Claire, a young mother who is loosing herself in her daily life, has the shortest back story of them all but may have gotten the most out of the actual process of cooking.  Antonia is a woman who has left a life of peace, familiarity and family for a new adventure on a new continent but finds herself grounded by her past.  Then there is Ian.  A great character in and out of the kitchen and who finds himself in search of the next culinary challenge to take on. 

Of course I had some favorite characters because of their back stories.  My absolute favorite character was Isabelle and the metamorphosis that took place within her after the exit of her husband and she found herself.  Though now she suffers from memory loss and mix-matched memories, her life was rich with relationships, children and then the adventures she made for herself. 

Tom was my second favorite character because of the depths of his love for a woman and the sorrow that replaced that love.  Food played a huge roll in his relationship with the love of his life and attending the cooking class is equal parts difficult and therapeutic for him.  The curiosity and dread of finding out the details of Tom’s back story made his part of the book extremely effective for me. 

I must emphasize that there may be eight students and a teacher that make up this wonderful book but they are all held together by the tenth, and at times, most important character of all.  The food!  Erica Bauermeister had me salivating and my stomach growling throughout her intimate and divine descriptions of the class dishes and other recipes being prepared here and there.  It really was cruel and unusual punishment for me since our house with our new gourmet kitchen won’t be ready for another two weeks and then we still have to wait for our household goods shipment to arrive and be unpacked.  Erica’s talent for food writing is spectacular and at times I could smell the ingredients and the dishes as the characters prepared them in class and at home waft off the page and up to my nose! 

I look forward to discussing The School of Essential Ingredients with my book club, Lit & The City, but I also hope if you have read Erica Bauermeister’s masterpiece that you will share with us here at Planet Books your thoughts on it.  Erica Bauermeister’s website can be found HERE.

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee: A Novel

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is a story of survival, both literally and figuratively.  The description on the inside cover of this book says, WE DON’T WANT TO TELL YOU TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS BOOK.  It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.  Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:  It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.  The story starts there, but the book doesn’t.  And it’s what happens afterward that is most important.  Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it.  When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either.  The magic is in how it unfolds.”  Little Bee

In the spirit of the author and publisher’s request, I will not go into details about Little Bee.  I will tell you that I loved this book.  The writing is wonderful.  The characters are so real I actually wish they were except for what happens to them.  I still find it amazing that a male mind wrote this story which is told from the minds of two complicated, feeling, richly woven women.   The story will stay with you as it will stay with me.  You will want to talk about this book as you read it and when you are done.  When you are ready to talk about Little Bee please let me know. 

{Rating ~ 4.5 out of 5 stars}

You can learn more about Little Bee and author Chris Cleave at his web site HERE.  Below I have included an author interview/book promo video for Little Bee (in the U.K. it is titled The Other Hand). 

Book Review ~ The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

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Unfortunately, thanks to all the hype over the film, I already knew the secret of The Reader when I started to read it.  I don’t think that it ruined the story for me though.  Instead it made each hint into Hanna Schmitz’s secret that much more frustrating.  During the 2009 award season earlier this year, I watched many interviews with actress Kate Winslet.  During one of these interviews she made said some very interesting things regarding playing Schmitz in the movie adaption of The Reader.  “How do you begin to understand the mind of an SS Gaurd?  That was extremely hard for me.” and “I did find my own way of understanding her because she has a secret.” 

The Reader is narrated by the grown up character called Michael Berg.  When he was fifteen he developed a temporarliy debilitating illness and during one of his attacks, while walking home, he meets Hanna Schmitz.  She helps him out and assists him home.  Michael gets better and with the suggestion of his mother, he makes a visit to Hanna’s apartment to thank her again.  Somewhere between the doorway and the kitchen table an affair between a woman in her mid-thirties and this fifteen year old boy (though she is led to believe that he is seventeen) begins and lasts for a few months.  During their affair, Hanna begins to have Michael read to her before she will join him in her bath and bed.  Due to her secret though, the summer ends abruptly when she suddenly leaves town and leaves in her wake a broken hearted and confused teenager.  It takes many years for Michael to recover from this and when he sees her again, it is in the most horrible and unbelievable places he could have ever imagined.  Hanna is on trial for war crimes that occured during WWII and Michael is a law student assigned to cover the trials for a class in post-war Germany.

The Reader is thick with drama, suspense, lust and secrets.  I don’t think it is a book to enjoy due to the serious and heavy subjects but it is an important novel to help remind people of the horrors of war and what the human mind and body is forced to do in those terrible times in order to survive.  I am glad I read The Reader and I am especially interested in seeing the film version as soon as I can. 

{Rating ~ 4out of 5 stars}

Below I have posted Kate Winslet’s interview on CBS Sunday Morning from earlier this year.  In it she talks about her role in The Reader as well as her role in Revolutionary Road.  I LOVE HER!

Book Review ~ Final Theory by Mark Alpert

Summary ~ Final Theory by Mark Alpert
Columbia University professor David Swift is called to the hospital to comfort his mentor, a physicist who’s been brutally attacked.  With his last words, the dying man gives his former pupil a seemingly random string of numbers that could hold the key to Einstein’s last and greatest secret.
Einheitliche Feldtheorie.  Einstein’s proposed Unified Theory – a set of equations that could explain all the forces of nature – would have revolutionized our understanding of the universe.  But Einstein never discovered it.  Or did he?
Within hours, David is arrested and interrogated by the FBI.  But they’re not the only faction pursuing the long-hidden theory.  A Russian mercenary also wants David to talk – and he will do whatever it takes.
On the run for his life, David teams up with an old girlfriend, a brilliant Princeton scientist, and frantically tries to piece together Einstein’s final theory to reveal its staggering consequences.

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What a fun, terrifying and thrilling book this was!  Mark Alpert’s debut novel, Final Theory, helped to bring me out of my reader’s block and into a world that, if Albert Einstein had succeeded in discovering the Theory of Everything, would be a far more dangerous and scarier place than the real world already is.  Having a world renowned physicist (in the world of physics and mathematics) for a father may have helped me pick up this book based on the premise but it was the thrill of the chase and the characters that kept me reading. 

David Swift is leading a life as a divorced father, allowed to spend only a few precious hours a day with his beloved son Jonah, when his life is changed suddenly and drastically.  A friend of his has been tortured for information and is dying at a New York City hospital and David has been summoned to see him in his last moments.  It’s in this meeting that David finds himself on a quest to keep Einstein’s Einheitliche Feldtheorie safe from the monsters who are on the hunt for it, which led to David’s friend’s imminent death.  And so David goes on a dangerous, quick paced adventure that will reunite him with a woman from his past as well as a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute, whom David had interviewed for a book he published about Einstein and his assistants. 

The characters in Final Theory are rich, special, well written and helped to draw me in to this great story.  I was continuously surprised with the plot twists and found myself exclaiming out loud, “Oh my God!” over and over at certain parts of the book.  That’s a good book if you ask me!  It had been a while since I read a real thriller and I enjoyed the quick pace and excitement that Mark Alpert gets across through the written word. 

The last real thriller I read was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.  Last September, the Large Hadron Accelerator at CERN  under the France/Switzerland border (part of the focus of Brown’s bestseller), suffered a malfunction shortly after being turned on for an experiment that would possibly recreate the Big Bang within the particle accelerator.  (You can learn more about that experiment HERE.)  Well, this April, to help promote the May release of the film adaptation of Angels and Demons, Tom Hanks will flip the switch after repairs to the damaged magnets are completed.  This Hadron Accelerator is like the Tevatron at Fermilab, outside of Chicago, which plays a roll in Alpert’s Final Theory.  To learn more about the CERN event click HERE.  I could picture the film adaptation of Final Theory very easily as I was reading it and wouldn’t be surprised if we are lining up at the theatre in coming years to watch that very thing.   

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Mark Alpert is an editor at Scientific American.  His job is to simplify “complex scientific ideas for the magazine’s readers.”  Alpert has made a little video introducing his book, Final Theory, which you can view below. 

Book Review ~ The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

Summary ~ The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee ~

In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese, with terrible consequences for both of them, and for members of their fragile community who will betray each other in the darkest days of the war.

Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the colony’s heady social life. She soon begins an affair, only to discover that her lover’s enigmatic demeanor hides a devastating past.

As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine and converge, a landscape of impossible choices emerges—between love and safety, courage and survival, the present and, above all, the past.

A Novel

Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher was not what I expected.  Not in way of the story but in how I wished to love it from beginning to end.  The first sixty pages or so were slow, unable to grasp my attention for more than a few moments at a time and were full of characters that I couldn’t become emotionally invested in.  Then the arrival of WWII and all that came with it turned the great city of Hong Kong and it’s civilians upside down and with those events a new book emerged to me.  A book full of mystery, deception, love, risk, and horrific descriptions of how brutal war can be. 

The Piano Teacher is the story of a young British woman named Claire, fresh off the boat in Hong Kong and fresh into a world she didn’t know existed.  She is married to Martin, an older Englishman who concerns himself with work at the Waterworks plant and not with the events that soon fill up his wife’s days.  Claire surprises herself by taking up a position with a Chinese family as their young daughter’s piano teacher.  The affiliation with the Chen’s opens a new world to Claire, full of party invitations, a whole new circle of people and an introduction to Will, the man who will sweep her off her feet and change her life forever.  Will has a story to tell but he doesn’t share details easily.  The first part of The Piano Teacher flips between 1952 and Claire’s torrid affair with Will and ten years prior, telling the stories of Will before WWII and the love of his life, Trudy.    

The Piano Teacher is a rich, disturbing and refreshing look at WWII.  It shows the reader the horrors that more than likely occurred on the other side of the world.  Living in Okinawa, I am familiar with the history of the Japanese invasion of this little island.  In The Piano Teacher you read of the Japanese invasion of another small area of the Orient.  If you are a fan of the 1987 film, Empire of the Sun, this may be the book for you.  Empire of the Sun is one of my all time favorite films based on the autobiographical novel by J. G. Ballard which tells the story of a young boy who is separated from his family when Japanese Forces invade Shanghai and he is sent to a work camp where he survives the war. 

If you have the patience to get through the first few chapters of The Piano Teacher, and maybe you will love it right from the start, this book is worth the time investment.  The characters become vivid and the story builds and builds as the war escalates and reaches the corners of the globe. 

{Rating ~ 3.75 out of 5}