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The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Heidi Grows Up by Charles Tritten

At Half-Price Books in San Antonio (which by the way is a very old-fashioned edition of Half-Price with lots of nooks and cubbyholes and corners and old books), I found a copy of translator Charles Tritten’s sequel to the classic Heidi by Johanna Spyri, called Heidi Grows Up. I remember Tritten’s two sequels, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children quite fondly from my teen years of reading, and I would love to have a copy of Heidi’s Children to go with my new/old copy of Heidi Grows Up.

So, I re-read this story of Heidi’s teen years. In the story, first Heidi agrees to go away form her beloved mountains to boarding school so that she can be educated away from the cruel schoolmaster in Dorfli and so that she can develop her musical abilities with violin lessons from a professional teacher. Heidi manages to win the affections of almost all of the girls in her new school, just as in the original Heidi, she wins over Clara and her father and all of the Sesemann household in Frankfurt. But again just as in the original, Heidi misses her grandfather and the Alps, and in the summer she and a friend go back to spend some time in the mountains that are truly Heidi’s “natural habitat.”

After a year or so of schooling, Heidi declares her intention to return to Dorfli and teach school. She hopes to teach the children useful skills such as sewing and knitting and reading and to replace the cruel schoolmaster who has been in the habit of shutting up the children in a boarded up cloakroom-turned-dungeon for any infraction of his strict and arbitrary rules. Heidi is ultimately successful in her reform of the school at Dorfli, and in the process she manages to also a reform a young delinquent (who, of course, has a good heart and fantastic artistic ability) named Chel. The book then ends, very happily and traditionally, with a wedding.

The entire story echoes the first bookHeidi quite a bit in its plot and themes, and Tritten is said to have “adapted from her (Spyri’s) other works . . . many years after she (Spyri) died.” It is a little odd that Spyri described Heidi as having dark curly hair while Tritten portrayed the same girl with straight fair hair in Heidi Grows Up. Curiously enough, Ms. Spyri herself may have adapted Heidi from another novel that she read or heard as a child:

“In April 2010, a Swiss professorial candidate, Peter Buettner, uncovered a book written in 1830 by the German author Hermann Adam von Kamp. The 1830 story is titled “Adelaide: The Girl from the Alps” (German: Adelheide, das Mädchen vom Alpengebirge). The two stories share many similarities in plot line and imagery. Spyri biographer Regine Schindler said it was entirely possible that Spyri may have been familiar with the story as she grew up in a literate household with many books.” Wikipedia, Heidi

Heidi Grows Up forms a nice bridge between Heidi and Heidi’s Children, both of which are better and more substantial books than than this middle one. I’d like to find an affordable copy of Heidi’s Children in good to excellent condition both for my library and for my personal reading. I’d like to see if the “ending” to the story of Heidi and her grandfather, The Alm-Uncle, is as satisfying as I remember it.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

The fourth book in Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series Renaissance man, Francis Crawford of Lymond, aka Comte of Sevigny, takes the characters, especially Lymond himself, to a new level of complexity and human triumph over adversity and suffering. And at one point in the story, we are informed or perhaps reminded that Lymond is only twenty-six years old. He’s already survived more than most men three times his age, even in the adventurous Renaissance times in which he lives.

In this book, Lymond manages to escape a couple of assassins disguised as nuns, imprisonment in a North African harem, poisoning, an underwater struggle with his murderous arch enemy, and a rather deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces who forfeit their lives if taken by the opposing player. The chess game in the seraglio in Istamboul is unforgettable, by the way. And that’s just a sample of the perils and predicaments that face Mr. Crawford in this highly entertaining adventure.

Entertaining, yes, but the denouement of the novel is heart-rending. Lymond must choose whether or not to forfeit the life of one innocent in order to save the lives of many more. It’s a no-win situation, and of course, since Lymond is the sensitive soul that he’s always been in all of the other books in the series, he blames himself for the outcome and carries a heavy burden of guilt into the next book in the series, The Ringed Castle.

Has anyone else read this series, and if so, what did you think? The vocabulary and writing style are challenging for me, in a good way, and I don’t usually find that to be so with novels written after 1900. Lymond is also a complex, conflicted, and challenging character. I do have a prediction to make at this point in the series, a prediction I came up with halfway through this volume: I predict that Lymond and Philippa will end up truly married by the end of the sixth book. Don’t ask me how (I don’t know) and don’t tell me if I’m right or wrong. I’ll see how my prediction pans out as I read books five and six.

If you want to read a little more about this engaging novel, here are some other blog reviews of Pawn in Frankincense:

She Reads Novels: Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett.
Shelf Love: Pawn in Frankincense (some spoilers)
Semicolon review of The Disorderly Knights, book three in the series.
Semicolon thoughts on Game of Kings, the first book in the series.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay

British author Hilary McKay specializes in stories of unsupervised, even neglected, children. Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Caddie Ever After, Forever Rose, and Permanent Rose make up a series of books featuring one of the most dysfunctional functioning familes in children’s literature. The father, Bill, is absent most of the time, and the mom, Eve, is an artist who spends her days and most of her nights in a backyard shed where she paints and dozes and daydreams. The children run wild, free range as it were. The other book that I know by Hilary McKay is a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, A Little Princess, called Wishing for Tomorrow. McKay’s follow-up features the poor little neglected girls of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

And now there’s Binny for Short, Ms. McKay’s latest. Eleven year old Binny has a mom (dad’s deceased) and an older sister and a younger brother. However, mom is awfully busy working to support the family, and she’s a little lackadaisical about supervising Binny. Which is fine with Binny. Binny spends her time exploring the seaside town she lives in along with her favorite enemy, Gareth, the boy next door. Or she looks for Max, her long lost dog. Or she tries to convince herself that Aunty Violet has not come back from the dead to haunt the house she left to Binny in her will. Or she works on the excursion boat that takes tourists to see the seals. Binny is never bored.

Binny’s six year old brother, James, is even more unbored. He grows poisoned lettuce, chases chickens, entertains the old people at the nursing home, wears his purple and pink wetsuit to the beach, sprays the back fence, and generally acts like a creative, thoughtful, free range kid. I’m pretty much in favor of the free range kids philosophy myself, even if I do find it difficult to put into practice given my place of abode in Major Suburbia and my kids’ personalities, pretty much introverted homebodies. However, I believe in giving kids room to roam and explore and learn the world on their own terms. (It just so happens that my kids prefer a world mostly mediated by books and movies, kind of like their mom and dad.)

Anyway, if you’re OK with children in your books or in real life who explore the neighborhood freely and who are allowed to figure out their place in that world by themselves for the most part, you’ll like Binny for Short. In other words, if you’ve read the Casson family books by Hilary McKay, and you’re OK with those children, you’ll probably enjoy Binny for Short. If you’re a little nervous about the whole free range kid thing, you might want to let your children at least experience it vicariously through Binny and James (and the Cassons: Cadmium, Saffron, Indigo, and Rose).

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell


“Child, you do not forgive because the person who wronged deserves it. You misunderstand the point of forgiveness entirely. The only cage that a grudge creates is around the holder of that grudge. Forgiveness is not saying that the person who hurt you was right, or has earned it, or is allowed to hurt you again. All forgiveness means is that you will carry on without the burdens of rage and hatred.”

What a lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation. And it’s all built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. When Sand wakes up in the cold fireplace of the Sundered Castle, he has no idea how he got there. Nor can he understand why everything, every single thing, in the castle is torn apart: floors, doors, furniture, linens, tools, everything. It couldn’t be the result of an earthquake, the story that Sand has heard all of his life. Earthquakes don’t tear both hammers and heavy iron anvils in half.

Now Sand finds himself trapped inside the Sundered Castle with a hedge of vicious thorns all around, and he does the only thing he knows how to do. He begins to use the forge and his skills as the son of a blacksmith to mend what has been broken.

This reworking of the story of Sleeping Beauty is aimed at middle grade readers, but it works for older children and adults, too. Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is more for adults, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is a YA adaptation. It’s good to have such a solid Sleeping Beauty story for the younger set.

The book does use the idea of medieval Catholic “saints” as semi-magical figures who offer guidance and answer prayers. This depiction of mythical saints may be uncomfortable for both Catholics who believe in praying to real saints and Protestants who are uneasy with the entire concept. However, if you don’t mind a couple of fictitious saints inhabiting the pages of the fairy tale, then The Castle Behind Thorns is uplifting and authentic at the same time.

Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai

A middle grade mystery story set among Afghan immigrants to the United States with a Muslim girl detective protagonist whose main interests are origami and other paper crafts—it’s definitely a niche that needed to be filled.

Just kidding, this kid’s mystery is really a good story with an interesting setting and likable characters. Ariana, the main character, is a twelve year old tomboy/artist who has a special skin sensitivity that makes her have to wear soft, seamless clothing with the tags removed. These quirks, interests, and idiosyncrasies make Ariana a real character who comes across as more than just a Muslim stand-in for developing multi-cultural awareness.

At the same time that Ariana is a well-rounded character, not just Afghan or just Muslim, she and her family are both of those things, and readers con learn a lot from this book about Afghan culture, food, and traditions. When it seems as if a family feud from two generations back has been carried over to the same families in America, Ariana must find a way to end the fighting and work together with the family that may be her own family’s enemies.

Shooting Kabul was a good book about an Afghan family emigrating to the U.S. just after 9/11, and Saving Kabul Corner takes the same Afghan immigrant community into the next decade as they learn to combine American culture with the traditions brought over from Afghanistan to make a new place for themselves in San Francisco.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

I read the first of the Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings, back in early January and reviewed it, sort of, here. Mostly I told you about all of the new words I learned from reading the first in a five volume series about a sixteenth century Scots lord with a loquacious and facile tongue.

A couple of months ago I read the second book in the series, Queens’ Play, in which Francis Crawford of Lymond, moves his base of operations from Scotland to France, where he lives a dissolute and adventurous life at the court of Henri II and manages to protect the young Scots princess Mary, who is affianced to the the Dauphin, from numerous assassination attempts, all while drinking inordinate amounts of alcohol and staying drunk for most of the book. Crawford of Lymond is, simply put, amazing.

“On the day that his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt.
News of the English attack came towards the end of the ceremony, when, by good fortune, Young Scott and his aunt Grizel were by all accounts man and wife. There was no bother over priorities. As the congregation hustled out of the church, led by bridegroom and father, and spurred off on the heels of the messenger, the new-made bride and her sister watched them go.”

In this third book, The Disorderly Knights, Lymond becomes entangled with the affairs of the Order of the Knights Hospitaliers, whose headquarters and refuge on the island of Malta is threatened by the Turkish fleet bent on revenge. The Knights of Malta themselves are torn by internal dissension, and the only hero in the whole mess, besides the ever-smiling and accomplished Lymond himself, is Sir Graham Reid Mallett, nicknamed Gabriel, a Scots recruit to the order whose skills and expertise in war and diplomacy rival those of Lymond.

After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and Gabriel both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border on behalf of, but not directly under the orders of, Queen Dowager Mary of Scotland. Gabriel joins Lymond’s merry band ostensibly to train under the great soldier, but also to claim Lymond’s allegiance and soul for God, the (Catholic) Church and the Knights Hospitaliers. Lymond, of course, has other plans for his soul.

Lymond: “What does anyone want out of life? What kind of freak do you suppose I am? I miss books and good verse and decent talk. I miss women, to speak to, not to rape; and children, and men creating things instead of destroying them. And from the time I wake until the time I find I can’t go to sleep there is the void—–the bloody void where there was no music today and none yesterday and no prospect of any tomorrow, or tomorrow, or next God-d— year.”

Finally, in addition to a fiendishly clever plot and excellent characters and dialog, there are the words. Here are a few more words that I gleaned from The Disorderly Knights:

Fremescent: Becoming murmurous, roaring. “Fremescent clangor.” –Carlyle.
Opaline: of or like opal; opalescent; having a milky iridescence.
Fauve: wild, literally, tawny
Insessorial: adapted for perching, as a bird’s foot.
Coign (quoin): an external solid angle of a wall or the like; cornerstone.
Debouch: to march out from a narrow or confined place into open country, as a body of troops: The platoon debouched from the defile into the plain.
Culverin: medieval form of musket or a kind of heavy cannon used in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cittern: an old musical instrument related to the guitar, having a flat, pear-shaped soundbox and wire strings.
Simulacrum: a slight, unreal, or superficial likeness or semblance.
Dissentient: dissenting, especially from the opinion of the majority.
Otiosity: being at leisure; idle; indolent.
Pendicle: An appendage; something dependent on another; an appurtenance; a pendant.
Bagatelle: something of little value or importance; a trifle.

Those are just a few of the new-to-me words I encountered in this volume of Francis Crawford of Lymond’s further adventures. The next book (fourth) in the series is entitled Pawn in Frankincense.

QOTD: What is your favorite word? What word(s) do you just like to use because of the sound and meaning and the way the two fit together?

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The subject of Africa and Africans and the relationship of Africans to Americans is one of my fascinations. I read Ms. Adichie’s novel, Americanah, with that fascination firmly in place. But the book was just ironic, sarcastic, and insightful enough to make me a little uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d enjoy meeting the author, and I don’t think she would like me very much. (According to one character in the novel who may or may not speak for the author, “American conservatives come from an entirely different planet,” obviously not a good one.) I feel as if Ms. Adichie, assuming her characters speak for her in some respects, would have something sardonic and probably also uncomfortably perceptive to say about me and my interest in Africa and my WASP background and my conservative Christian worldview.

Through her main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, especially Ifemelu, the novelist has a lot to say about Nigerians and “Non-American Blacks” (NAB’s) and American Blacks (AB’s) and American Non-Blacks and Brits and other Europeans and poor people and rich people and bourgeois middle class people and everyone else whose weaknesses and foibles Ifemelu manages to expose and ridicule and deflate. Thought provoking, yes. But Ifemelu is also self-absorbed, sometimes pitiable, and irresponsible and unreliable. In short, she’s a real person with a sin problem, although she wouldn’t use that term.

Ifemelu is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. She leaves Nigeria partly to escape from the lack of choices there and from her dysfunctional family and partly to study in the U.S., the land of opportunity. She finds that when she comes to America, she suddenly becomes “black”, a category she never considered one way or another back in Nigeria. She is subject to the racism, overt and subtle, that American Blacks encounter and deal with all of the time in this country. And she also becomes “African” in the eyes of many Americans, black and white, who tell her about their charitable contributions to an orphanage in Zimbabwe or their trip to Kenya or their love for Mother Africa, as if Africa were one big country, and of course, she would identify with people and entities half a continent away from her own nation and culture.

Ifemelu, however, is an honest and incisive thinker, and she forges her own identity in the U.S. She eventually becomes a blogger with a widely read and profitable blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She writes about race in America, about black women and hair, about subtle and not-so subtle racism, about Michelle and Barack Obama, about her own experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., and about the people and interactions she observes. Her blog posts about race in particular prick the consciences and destroy the pretensions of many of her readers. (The unrealistic part, of course, is that she makes quite a bit of money as a result of the popularity of her blog. How many rich bloggers are there?)

Americanah is a smart, penetrating, rather dramatic look at the immigrant experience and at the emigrant experience and at the experience of returning home. But it made me feel the way I feel when I’m in the company of intellectual people who spend their time mocking and pointing out the defects of those who are “beneath” them, outside their little clique. Americanah is an opinionated book, and it’s not a kind book. The characters in the book are honest, possibly right about many of their opinions and insights, but not very compassionate or forgiving.

“What are you reading?” Kelsey turned to Ifemelu.
Ifemelu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.
“Is it good?”
“Yes.”
“It’s a novel, right? What’s it about?”
Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing. Ifemelu disliked the question; She would have disliked it even if she did not feel, in addition to her depressed uncertainty, the beginning of a headache.

At the risk of being relegated to the realm of all the Kelseys of this country, despite my lack of “liberal” credentials, I will say that Americanah is about the Nigerian immigrant experience, both in the U.S. and Britain. It’s also about the issues and stresses of being a black woman in America, specifically in the Northeastern part of the U.S. And it’s a novel about romantic love, and lost love and recovered love. The ending, like the detail of the money-making blog, struck me as unrealistic and unlikely. But I did learn a lot along the way.

Warning: Self-absorption and sexual license abound in the novel, just as they do in the real lives of many, both Africans and Americans. That part of the novel is almost too realistic.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

There are a few authors I could read all day, all week, and never get tired of their books, their characters, and their writing style. Whereas some authors I read and enjoy but then need a break—Dickens or John Grisham or even Tolkien. Others are so delightful and amusing and light-hearted that I could take a steady diet and not feel too over-filled or burdened. P.G. Wodehouse, Jan Karon, Agatha Christie (well, maybe not “light-hearted”), and Alexander McCall Smith fall into the latter category.

Mr. McCall Smith has written several series of novels set in various locales, and I’ve enjoyed at least a few of the books in each series:

Corduroy Mansions in London
44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh, Scotland,
The Isabel Dalhousie novels, also in Scotland,
Professor Dr. von Igelfeld novels in Germany and other settings,
and of course, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency set in Botswana, Africa.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon is the latest, and perhaps greatest, of this best-selling detective series. I enjoyed the contrasting of modern ways and the old conservative ways of traditional Botswanan culture—and the compromises between the two. I enjoyed the two mysteries and their cozy solutions. I enjoyed the continued unfolding of the friendship between Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi. And Mma Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni continued to work in this book as in others at loving and caring for his traditionally built and professionally astute helpmeet. The supporting cast in this series also make an appearance and add to the story, each in his own way: Mma Potokwane, Phuti Radiphuti, and the apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell.

A couple of quotes, just to brighten your day and give you something to think about:

On forgiveness:
“She had forgiven him, yes, but she still did not like to remember. And perhaps a deliberate act of forgetting went along with forgiveness. You forgave, and then you said to yourself: Now I shall forget. Because if you did not forget, then your forgiveness would be tested, perhaps many times and in ways that you could not resist, and you might go back to anger, and to hating.”

On beauty:
“You could be very glamorous and beautiful on the outside, but if inside you were filled with human faults—jealousy, spite, and the like—then no amount of exterior beauty could make up for that. Perhaps there was some sort of lemon juice for inside beauty . . . And even as she thought of it, she realized what it was love and kindness. Love was the lemon juice that cleansed and kindness was the aloe that healed.”