I finished this book wondering if I had understood correctly what the author was trying to say. I have all sorts of ideas, but they don't hold togetheI finished this book wondering if I had understood correctly what the author was trying to say. I have all sorts of ideas, but they don't hold together into one cohesive message. If I don’t understand the book, how can I give it more stars?
The pluses are that the book keeps you thinking, it has sentences that cleverly hint at philosophical messages and lots of amusing lines. The humor is satirical irony.
The sentence in the GR book review stating that this novel is, “an ironic story epic that humorously tenderly erodes sacrosanct values: childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even poetry” is an almost perfect description of this book! I have replaced the word “epic” with “story” and “tenderly” with “humorously”. Little is sacrosanct in this book. Not politics. Certainly not sex. Kundera’s books always contain a heavy dose of eroticism.
So how does the story unroll and what does the book deal with? First and foremost, the relationship between an adolescent son and his doting mother. He is tied to his mother's very short apron strings. I cannot imagine any reader liking any of the characters. The plot jumps around; it is meant to confound; it is meant to be confusing. It is meant to keep you thinking. It is not the steps of the story we are to follow but rather the underlying philosophical messages we are meant to think about. The author himself interrupts the events and speaks directly to the readers explaining why he has chosen to flip to another episode. The setting is Prague at the end of the forties and early fifties.
Maybe we are not supposed to draw any deep conclusion. Maybe we are simply to laugh. Laugh at society? Laugh at ourselves? What I kept thinking about was how the son never said anything original; he spoke only clever lines that someone else had said or expressed views that one should say. When what one should say changed, what he said changed too.
The book was written by the author in 1969 in Czech. Then it was translated into French. In 1985 the French translation was revised by the author in an attempt to better correspond to the original. An English translation from the revised French translation was done by Aaron Asher. This was done in close cooperation with the author to insure that no new distortion should occur.
I enjoyed the audiobook narration by Richmond Roxie.
Seriously, I didn't like this. Yeah, I like how Vladimir Nabokov writes but this book just doesn't have the sparkle, the humor or the polished writingSeriously, I didn't like this. Yeah, I like how Vladimir Nabokov writes but this book just doesn't have the sparkle, the humor or the polished writing of Lolita or Speak, Memory or other books by the author. It feels like a piece that still needs more work….or maybe you can work something to death. Look at the history of this book. Despair first came out in 1934 as a serial in the Russian literary journal Sovremennye. It was published as a book in 1936, translated by the author into English in 1937, but what exists today is the author's reworking of 1965. Clearly he did have time to rethink this.
Why doesn’t it work for me? Despair not only was a forerunner to Lolita, published in 1955, but it feels like that too. One can compare Hermann of this novel with Lolita's Humbert Humbert. Both are unreliable first-person narrators, but one is a shadow of the other. Not in who they are but in the strength of their characterizations. Lydia, Hermann's wife, doesn't come close to Lolita's Dolores.
So what is the theme of this one? It is a murder story, but more! It is really about doubles, about identity and what connects one person to another. Hermann is delusional. Anything he says has to be questioned. Of course that is true too of Humbert Humbert, but there it is easier to just see the facts presented as his point of view. In Despair the story is so much more complicated; you are thrown between the writing of a story, how authors write stories and what actually happens, i.e. the events of the tale. Too complicated! Not properly thought through. Similar themes but quite simply not as good.
There are also funnier and more noteworthy lines in Lolita. More to chuckle at. More to think about on all sorts of themes, having nothing to do with sex or murder.
Christopher Lane does a good job with the narration, even if occasionally when he personifies dubious characters of Russian origin it was practically impossible to hear the lines. Arrogance, self-satisfaction and delusional traits, as well as furious explosions of temper all are well intoned.
For me this was quite simple a forerunner to Lolita. That I gave five stars. ...more
I think this is a fabulous book of non-fiction. It is clear, interesting from start to finish and the amount of detail is perfect. It is not dry, notI think this is a fabulous book of non-fiction. It is clear, interesting from start to finish and the amount of detail is perfect. It is not dry, not ever.
It follows the fall of the totalitarian regimes in the six countries of the Warsaw Pact: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. You come to understand why the USSR fell apart. It follows the significant role played by leaders and dissidents in these six nations and Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Regan, George H. W. Bush and Pope John Paul II. The events in each of these countries and their respective leaders are covered in detail. Soviet involvement in Afghanistan is also discussed because the disastrous military campaign there partially explains Soviet abandonment of the satellite countries.
I am not knowledgeable enough to check the accuracy of every detail; I read the book to learn. Nevertheless, I do not doubt the author's information - he is an English journalist writing for the London Evening Standard and he witnessed much first hand.
In the introduction the author states that he uses the terms Eastern and Central Europe interchangeably, as well as Soviet Union, Russia and the USSR. It would have been better had he simply stated which counties he classified as Eastern European and which Central European. In addition he uses the words socialism and communism interchangeable. This is sloppy, and in some lines the word choice is quite simply wrong. Socialism and communism cannot be used interchangeably; they are not the same thing! This frequently bothered me.
I wish the book had covered the evolution of events in the Baltic States which also threw off Soviet tyranny. The author states that Yugoslavia is omitted because it deserves a book of its own.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Paul Hecht. Some of the Eastern European names are hard to catch, but most often I could still find these names with the help of Wiki. The narration is excellent. The reading is slow and clear. You need that in a book of non-fiction where there is so much to learn.
I really, really, really liked this book. I found it fascinating and clear. I just wish I could glue everything in my head so it never disappears. When you read a book that is this good, you don't want to forget any small detail.
(Please read what I have written below. You will find there additional important information.)
About 1/3 through the book:
I have listened to about 1/3 and am totally enjoying it. Absolutely fascinating. It starts in in the 1970s so you watch the disintegration of the Empire, not just the final fall. It is one of those books of non-fiction that IS NOT DRY. When a number is given it is compared with another so you understand its significance. You laugh at what you are being told; the author puts it so amusingly. For example, when he talks about the Stasi and the GDR he speaks of a spy who marries for the sole purpose of spying on the woman more efficiently! Everything had to be recorded on paper because there were so many power cuts. He talks of mountains of information and how stupid much was - such as the exact conversation of a guy buying a hot dog. "No the mustard isn't necessary, just the bread." The book is interesting and easy to read and read and read. Just the right amount of information to pique your interest. Not too much so it gets tedious.
I hadn't realized to what extent the dissension in Poland in the 80s was hinged upon the papal choice of Pope John Paul II.
All readers will recognize name after name after name. You learn about Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity (The Polish Trade Union), Václav Havel, Erich Honecker, Erich Mielke (German secret police official, head of Stasi), Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko and of course Mikhail Gorbachev. And I have only read a third of the book! ...more
Never was I bored when I listened to this book. Never was I confused by the facts. The balance between historical detail and personal faOn completion:
Never was I bored when I listened to this book. Never was I confused by the facts. The balance between historical detail and personal family events was perfect. I enjoyed that the history of Czechoslovakia during the war was thoroughly covered as well as what happened to her family.
I adored learning about Madeleine as a child....she was no angel and what she tells us is often very funny. She got a D minus in geography! OK, that was when she was still very young, so we can forgive this. She throws in humor so often. She poses philosophical questions and analyzes historical events. She doesn't always have all the answers to every question, but then we consider, along with her, the possible alternatives.
I am truly impressed with the historical detail she has taught me and my delight with the learning process. This book shows how learning can be fun. Historical figures, such as Edward Benes(President) and Jan Mazaryk(Foreign Minister) and his father,Thomas Mazaryk(President), and Albright's family, particularly herself and her father, feel like people I know. I know more than just what they did. I have an idea of what makes them who they are.
For me this book was wonderful. It is interesting, instructive, funny and moving. A great book. It is not often that so much detail can be absorbed when you listen to a book. It is amazing. I must give it five stars.
ETA: couple more funny things...... When Madeleine was little she was told to give water to their chickens. She grabbed a milk bottle and filled it with water and gave that to them. Her mother asked hos she expected the chickens to drink from that. She replied that chickens have long necks. And do you know that the V1s used in the Blitz were called "bubble and squeak" or how Albright came to wear a large emerald ring with surrounding inset diamonds to Tito's funeral? The book will tell you.
Thoughts while reading/listening:
This is really, really good. It is much more history about WW2 than memoir. Albright does an excellent job of explaining history. All is very clear and interesting and amusing too since she throws in funny jokes. It is true that the main focuses are European and Czech and British and American. This is understandable.
Here is one example of a joke: Mussolini and Hitler were on the phone. Mussolini was not able to take over Greece and in general was unable to move forward. So he says to Hitler, "This telephone connection is bad. Where are you? In Britain?" You see Hitler hadn't managed to knock out London in the Blitz. So of course, Hitler was NOT in Britain..... I am not saying this as well as Albright does.
She reads her own book and probably because she knows how to speak she does a fine job. I really cannot say I have any complaints. To like this book you have to like non-fiction and history of course. And be interested in reading about World War II. I have listened to almost half. ...more
Look at the complete title of this book. The book is more about Alice Herz-Sommer's life philosophy than the events that shaped that philosophy. She iLook at the complete title of this book. The book is more about Alice Herz-Sommer's life philosophy than the events that shaped that philosophy. She is the oldest living holocaust survivor. Yes, she is still living and will be 110 in November 2013. She and her son survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She has met many famous musicians, conductors, composers, philosophers, authors and politicians. She speaks of their accomplishments and how she came to know each of them. Kafka she met when still a child. He was a friend of her older sister's husband. Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and Rainer Maria Rilke were friends of her mother. Golda Meir, Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Isaac Stern came to her informal concerts at home when she lived in Israel, and she offered piano lessons to teach Gold Meir. But honestly, it is more that she brushed shoulders with these people rather than that they were her very close friends.
She was a fantastic pianist. Music was the central theme of her life - always! Her love for music really shines through. Music is not just something she enjoys; it is something that is important and vital to all life. That is what this book says AND that one must face life with optimism.
Optimism. She refused to even talk about the years in Theresienstadt. Having survived she looked forward rather than backward. She never let those years be discussed at home after the war when she was raising her son. Complaining she frowned upon. Laughter and music were the medicine for all ills. The book is filled with lots of wise lines.....but although most all of us will agree on her wisdom and sage statements, it is only when you look at a particular event that one can determine the correct way of behaving. I will give only one example of what I am referring too. Some children benefit from talking about the difficult experiences they have gone through. Avoiding a topic is not always helpful. Talk is necessary for some people and in some situations. So generalizations, that we all agree on, are less interesting than figuring out what to do in a particular situation. The main emphasis of this book is her life philosophy, but there is no discussion of when and where and how to put these principles into practice. Do you see what bothered me?
I liked learning about her personal experiences in Theresienstadt. I am glad they were included in the book and not avoided. Many of her friends did not even know she was a holocaust survivor! That is the extent to which she refused to speak of those years.
I like the woman very much. I respect her. My rating is a judgment of the book, not the person. The book hops from one time to another, from one subject to another. There is a chapter on her friends, but we are told about their wonderful accomplishments more than about their relationship with Alice.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Linda Korn. It was clearly spoken, but in a sweet tone of admiration that was not to my liking. She cannot do an Irish brogue, although she tries in a few lines spoken by the concierge of Alice's apartment building. Some of the names, and there were lots mentioned, I could not decipher. That is a clear advantage of a paper book.
For me, the most interesting parts about this book were her Theresienstadt memories and the parts about Kafka and Spinoza. I am very glad I have met Alice Herz-Sommer.
DEFINITELY NO SPOILERS!!! This has been difficult to achieve.
ETA: I admit defeat. I only want to give this book three stars, and I do not quite now whDEFINITELY NO SPOILERS!!! This has been difficult to achieve.
ETA: I admit defeat. I only want to give this book three stars, and I do not quite now why. The book was perfectly executed. It kept me reading. The characters were well rounded. The writing was fine. Some nice similes were included, but they were not excessive! But somerthing didn't work for me. It felt like fiction. The book was just plain kind of ordinary........ Sorry for being so unclear! I simply cannot give this and On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood the same number of stars. I cannot do it.
Maybe the lack of clarity added to arouse our curiosity annoyed me a teeny bit. Maybe I wanted it spelled out more clearly exactly who were the author's grandparents. I THINK I know, but I cannot say without giving a spoiler. I am not sure. The author wanted to write a book of fiction, and that is what she did. I think I would have preferred that she wrote it as a memoir and clarified which facts were missing. The author doesn't fill the reader in on some later personal events b/c she wishes to respect the privacy of certain individuals. But now I am confronted with the whole idea that this could be all wrong, just total fiction, a nice story that we put in place of the missing facts. Hmmm, I don't like that. Is this what is bothering me?! I am not sure. Sometimes we cannot know the past, no matter how much we want to understand it. Rather than making up stories, isn't it better to accept that we cannot know?
My husband is laughing at me as he goes out the door to work. He asked me what I was typing. He knows this has been bothering me since I finished the book yesterday. I didn't want to give this four stars, and I didn't know why. All I know is that I feel relieved having changed it to three stars. Perhaps I have resolved what was bothering me!
Really this book is a perfect example of what historical fiction can achieve. The novel is based on what is known about the author's grandparents. What is known are the dates of birth, dates and places of death. It is a known fact that one son of the Bauer family escaped death in an extermination camp through Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia to Britain. What is known is who are are the surviving offspring. What is not known are the emotions of these characters. What were the driving forces behind their choices. We will never really know for sure, but the author has made these people so real and so believable that what happens here in these pages does seem true. I appreciate that the author clearly states what she has guessed, what is fabulated. She in fact points out ohter possible scenarios. She has chosen one explanation for the given family tree. She has taken one possibility and brought it to life. The people live and breathe.
The story is about a mother, father, their son and a nanny. They live in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, when it is overtaken by the Nazis. They flee to Prague, before it too was invaded. It is also clearly stated in the book description that the son will be one of those children of Jewish heritage that were transported to safety by means of the Kindertransport. What this book does so wonderfully is show how different characters behaved in very different ways to the same given circulmstances. I was amazed at how well the author could portray people of different sensibilitues equally well. On Kristallnacht the adults are shocked by what they see, but even a child who has not seen the actual event feels the atmosphere in the house. The story shows you haow each character responds to the same event.
The following night at supper, nobody spoke. Pepik (the son) was free to mass his knedliky into mountain ranges as he desired. He seemed to think he had done something to provoke the silence at the table and began guessing what he was suppose to apologise for, "I'm sorry for playing with my food like a baby."
The Bauers kept eating.
"I'm sorry I wet my bed last night."
Anneliese looked at Marta with raised eyebrows, and Marta nodded to show this was true. (page 111)
Another point that should be mentioned is that the novel switched time period and narrative form at given intervals. All of a sudden you get someone speaking in the first person and at a later point in time. I was confused by this. I didn't know who was speaking, but rather than annoying me it aroused my curiosity. By the end of the novel you understand. I felt that this served a definite purpose. Just as some children of the Kindertransport must learn to live not knowing of their past, we the reader must learn to accept that we must wait to understand. Both we and the child want to understand the whole story. This was not merely a gimmick but in fact an important message.
Read this book to learn about the Kindertransport, to learn about what happened in Sudetenland and how secular Jews felt and reacted when they were confronted with hatred. The beauty of this book is that we people all behave so differently and you glimpse how this can be. I am giving this book four stars because the people felt all very different and yet all very real. I cannot give it five, because in a real memoir you get added little details that are lacking here. (Please see the afjustment above!) ...more