19 November 2009

Book Deux

#2 - Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I chose Sarah's Key because it received rave reviews on all the bookseller websites as well as from one of my good friends. Also, the book is centered on the Vel d'Hiv raid, an event that I've never heard of despite being a German Studies major who focused on the Holocaust a great deal.

For a brief history lesson from information I've gathered from Wiki and the book itself, the Vel d'Hiv raid was responsible for removing thousands of Jewish families from their homes in Paris. On the night of July 16, 1942, French police under the Vichy government knocked on Jewish families' homes and demanded they come with them with only a suitcase in hand. The families were brought to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, an indoor cycling stadium, and remained there for days. No food, no water, and barely any toilets available for more than 10,000 people. The Jews were then transported to camps. Men, women, and children were separated from each other. The children were left alone in the camps as the men and women were sent to Auschwitz and immediately gassed. Of the thousands that were rounded up and sent away, only a scant amount returned.

de Rosnay uses the Vel d'Hiv in order to interweave two stories that are sixty years apart from one another.

The first story begins on the night of the Vel d'Hiv. A 10 year old French Jew named Sarah is rounded up along with her parents. In order to protect her 4 year old brother, Michel, she hides him in their secret cupboard, promising that she'll be back soon. Only she has the key to unlock the cupboard, hence the title of the book.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American expatriate living in Paris, has been assigned to write an article on the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv . While she struggles to balance her family life, she becomes engrossed with the history of the Vel d'Hiv and the thousands of children and their families that were never able to return home.

Suffice it to say that Julia and Sarah's path cross in one way or another.

The book, as a concept, is successful. The chapters alternate between her story and Julia's until the middle of the book where their stories converge and Julia's perspective takes charge. I found Sarah's story gripping, come hell or high water she was determined to return to Paris and retrieve her young brother from the closet. She sees her parents lose strength and hope. Her mother becomes a mere shell of her former self, but Sarah hangs on because she knows Michel is waiting for her.

The book's weakness, however, is Julia's story. Sarah's story is told in the third person, while Julia's is in the first person. She's grating and irritating. I found her side of the story to be trivial, bordering on Chick-Lit at times. I just didn't give a shit about her marriage or how despite her living in Paris for more than half her life, she was still seen as an American. Her French husband and his family embody the arrogant French stereotype. Come on, Julia. If your husband was always this bad, why did you bother falling in love with the bastard? Even when de Rosnay tries to make Bertrand (Julia's husband) a sympathetic character, I wanted to kick him in the face. Furthermore, the end of the story pissed me the hell off. It's too much of a spoiler to even describe the situation, but all I can say is, seriously Julia?

If you read my review of The Shadow of the Wind, you might remember my heart fluttering over how Zafón managed to make you ache with the characters. de Rosnay doesn't do this, not with Julia. I read the words and could only reply with "meh," when it came to Julia's family struggles. Sarah, on the other hand, was much easier to relate to. We all have family and in my case, I have a younger brother whom I still try to protect even though he's 17. It wasn't hard to connect with Sarah in that way.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the book. I loved Sarah's story, but couldn't stand Julia's character for the life of me. I could have done without Julia and her emotional struggles that were only connected to Sarah's story because she made them be.

Sarah gets a high five for being the most determined and strong 10 year old ever, but I'd like to trip Julia and make her fall into the Seine.

16 November 2009

As the days keep turning into night...


I'm pretty behind after a weird turn of events. Borders and Butler's have me working a lot, we're kind of renovating the house in preparation of the arrival of my sister and nieces from Germany in two weeks, and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is nowhere to be found (not my local library OR Borders).

But I'm getting back on track this week! I currently have Sarah's Key, Soccernomics, and City of Thieves in my possession. Nick and Norah's... is on its way from a neighboring town's library.

Is it pathetic that I already need to make a 'comeback' of sorts in this Cannonball Read?

04 November 2009

And so it begins - Book 1

#1 - The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Today I had an interview for a job with Borders Books (holla at yo' discount!). The manager asked me what was the last book I read and how I would recommend it to a customer. PERFECT question in regard to this review I'm writing.

So of course, I told her how I read The Shadow of the Wind and how much I fucking adored this book (a little less crudely said, of course). I was hired. Thanks, book!


In post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona, Daniel Sempere is brought to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father when he is 10 years old. The Cemetery is a place where books go when they no longer have an owner. Upon his visit, Daniel is permitted to bring home a book of his choice in order to preserve its memory. Every book has a soul, he is told, and by reading a book from the Cemetery, he is helping its spirit grow.

The book he chooses, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, puts him on what becomes a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the little known author's life. In the meantime, a mysterious man is scouring the city for Carax's books so he can burn them, erasing any memory of the author and his books. Over the next 10 years of Daniel's life, we also see how the book and his ensuing quest have shaped him as a person.

The lone fact that the story takes place in Barcelona sold me. The book is about Barcelona and its history just as much as it is about Daniel. I spent 3 days in Barcelona as part of my post-grad Eurotrip and recognized most of the places and streets that Zafón describes in the book. Like Daniel (and millions of other people), I walked down Las Ramblas, went up to Montjüic, etc. It's all very cool to see. I only wish that I had read the book before visiting Barcelona so I could have followed the map at the end of the book and done my own little tour. Now I have even more reason to return. Playing into the history of the city, Zafón shows how the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era affected the characters and their actions.

The best thing about The Shadow of the Wind was that it constantly surprised me. Every time I thought I was doing a good job of piecing the story together, Zafón literally slapped me across the face with something new, leaving my theories completely worthless. He made me feel like my time (and money) spent in college, analyzing papers and books, was time not-so-well spent. And you know what? I liked it. I liked the challenge and the fact that I didn't know where the story was going next. It was unpredictable without being outlandish and silly.

I've read plenty of books where the characters announce their love for one another, but they were just empty declarations and promises that lacked any real substance. Zafón forces you to ache with the characters when he tells their stories of lost or unrequited love. His descriptions are so vivid that I never once thought that these characters were caricatures, conjured up purely for entertainment purposes. I cared for them and related to them. He takes great care in developing them into multi-dimensional people who have their flaws. Daniel isn't a perfect human being nor is the villain arbitrarily pure evil.

As I neared the end, I realized that I didn't want the book to end, yet I was desperate to know its conclusion. That's how I know a book is good - when I never want the reading experience to end, but can't wait to see what happens next.

Lucky for me, there's a (kind of) prequel to the book in The Angel's Game which apparently has similar motifs and also takes place in Barcelona. Looking forward to that.