Through Chapter Two and a little more: Yesterday I finished the marvellous memoir A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan by Netofer Pazira. I gave it five stars, but having just finished a memoir, I wanted a novel. But which? I had read all of the books loaded into my Kindle! Since I am so picky about how an author writes, I checked my GR list of books that are available on Kindle, deciding to sample a few until I found one I could not put down. I found it - Ursula Hegi's new historical fiction entitled Children and Fire. It portrays a wonderful teacher, a teacher of 10-year-old boys in a Catholic school, who is convinced that her kids should join Hitler-Jugend! How are we going to feel about a woman who is a marvellous teacher but is misguided?! How has she been fooled, and how did the German people get fooled by Hitler? It takes place on one day – February 27, 1934, one year after the burning of the Reichtag in Berlin. This was Shrove Monday, the end of the festivities before Lent. Every student and even the teacher remember exactly what they were doing when they heard of the burning. The shock they felt, and the fear that Hitler induced in them, this fear and hatred for the Communists, is vividly portrayed. We know now that the Communist/anarchist Van der Lubbe was not responsible, but this was not known then. Hitler accused the Communists to create fear and hatred. He did it for his own purposes. A year later the children were still scared that the Communists might come and burn their school, their homes, their…..Hitler was an adept manipulator of fear.
What I immediately noticed in reading just a few chapters of the sample was that the writing is intelligent, compassionate and humorous. Even serious topics can be humorous. Bruno's father exclaims that Hitler should be hung up by his balls, or maybe just one, if rumours are correct! I read samples from other books about us adults…… Really, they were so depressing - married couples having affairs, discrimination against blacks, rape and whatnot. I am not saying this book about the build up to the Second World War is light reading, but the difference is that some of the people portrayed, the school children and their teacher Thekla are good people, perhaps misguided and confused by events, but their hearts are in the right place. I really cannot take a book filled with depravity and coarseness when no characters make any effort to at least try and be good people. I don't mind mistakes, but I dislike reading about people who are not even attempting to be good or moral or kind. Such is just too dam depressing!
And I love Thekla's view on premarital sex and sensuality. Both the belief that God created the earth in six days and the sin of pre-marital sex could be thrown out together with the dirty dishwater! I simply adore Ursula Hegi's ability to string together words in an amusing, compassionate and intelligent manner.
One more thing - Thekla is one of those teachers that stands out above all the rest. We all look back at our years at school and if we have been lucky we will remember one teacher, maybe two, that meant the world to us. She teachers her students a given subject right when that topic captures their interest. On the curriculum she should be teaching "Lent", but what does she teach? Geography! Why? Well, because the students want to know where Berlin is. How close is it to their homes? How can you teach about the importance of giving up more food when poverty is strangling them? Acquaint yourself with this teacher:
She loves them all: the boys with crossed eyes and crooked teeth; the brainy boys and the beautiful boys; the boys from good families and the boys with "Rotznasen" – runny noses -who've been born into families with something as basic as wiping your nose is not done for you when you're little, and you never learn how to do it for yourself. Like the Führer. This is where he came from, and the uniform can't cover that. His skin may be clean and dry, but he'll always have "Rotznase". It's a way of living, a way of having been brought into life. (7%)
15% through the book: When I read a good book, I want to share my thoughts with others. I have noted that when I really like a book my reviews tend to get longer and longer. Gundula, here is a message just for you. This book discusses legends and myths and poetry and famous German authors. I just learned of Friedrich von Schiller who wrote "Der Taucher" – "The Diver". You will learn why the children decided to change the name of their classroom frog from Copernicus to Icarus. And poetry hasn't spoken to me before?!
Who is Fraulein Siderova? I know she was the boys' teacher before Thekla, but why is she no longer the teacher. It was her that started the routine of teaching the children one poem every week. They were not ordered to memorize the stanzas. Oh no! She aroused the children's curiosity so they wanted to recite the poem, so they each felt compelled to seek the meaning of the poem for themselves. Hegi pushes her readers just as Fräulein Siderova and Thekla pushed their students, by arousing our curiosity to seek out the answers. Here follows another example:
But the midwife, Lotte Jansen, knew there was no God. Of course, she kept this secret from the nuns who employed her to bring life into the world. At the St. Margaret Home, she was known for her kindness and skilful hands, but most of all because not one single death happened on her watch. It was said that her great tragedy protected anyone she touched because death would be embarrassed to come near her again.
In the dining room of the Home hung a diptych of St. Margaret. In the first panel, the patron saint of pregnant women was swallowed by a dragon. Actually, it was the devil disguised as a dragon – by divine preordination, so it was said – St. Margaret clutched her book-size cross as she was being sucked down the tunnel of the dragon's throat. The edge of her cross scraped and pierced the lining of the dragon's throat, causing his engorged body to contract, a brutal reminder – the midwife thought – to the pregnant Girls of what they had yet to endure. That's why she advised them to sit with their backs to the picture while they ate. (15%)
I do not know any than you how this connects to the plot. I only know that this is a flashback to 1899 to the St. Margaret Home on the North Sea. Lotte Jansen, is she related to Thekla Jansen? Questions???? I do know what is painted on the second panel of the diptych so I amon the way to find out how this is related to Thekla, her boys and Burgdorf, Germany. As I page through the table of contents I see that there are many flash backs, these chapters alternating with the events that take place February 27, 1934, i.e. one year after the burning of the Reichtag.
OK, I finished the book. Yes, I liked it, but for me three stars feel adequate. There is very good character development. The characters are multidimensional. For a while I thought Thekla was "holier than thou", but then she too fumbled and was brought down to earth. There are many characters. You have Thekla, her mother and father, the nuns, teachers, the students, villagers and friends. You learn to know the characteristics of all of these people. Maybe, a few less would have been better.... The relationships are complicated. You read the book to understand these relationships.
One can also choose to read this book for its excellent portrayal of how teaching should be done. However I felt the message got a bit preachy, a bit redundant, a bit too much of a lecture.. On the other hand, the reader is given interesting informations about a wide range of German authors.
I loved listening to those kind words and watching the red and gold fire flickering in the stove and milky white clNO SPOILERS!!!
I loved listening to those kind words and watching the red and gold fire flickering in the stove and milky white clouds of steam rising over the vats, leaving a dove coloured crust; like hoar frost, on the sloping rafters of the roof , where jagged chinks let through blue patches of sky. The wind died down, the sun came out, and the whole yard seemed sprinkled with ground glass. The screeching of sleighs came from the street, light blue smoke curled up from chimneys, and soft shadows as if they too had a story to tell.
The tall, bony Grigory, hatless, with his long beard, and large ears, looked like a kind-hearted magician as he stood there mixing the bubbling dye and continued the lesson:
Never be afraid to look a person straight in the face. Even the dog that attacks you will run away then…… (23%)
Russian authors are the best – in my view. Their description of people, both in appearance and character, of places and events are unsurpassed. This is an autobiography, the first book of three, by and about Maxim Gorky. Tolstoy has also written an autobiography entitled My Childhood; their lives were very different. Gorky's portrays the lowest classes of the Russian people. It is not surprising that he became an enthused supporter of Marxism. Please read the book description if you are unaware of the basics of Gorky's life. Here, in this book, you see the events of the author's first eight years, through his own eyes.
Stories after stories – that is what you get. Gorky had a very frightening, terrible childhood. The suffering he describes is physical. Beatings, brawls, fights: and yet at the same time there are fairy tales and legends he has learned from his grandmother; he is close to his grandmother and her life philosophy inspires hope even during the darkest of times. When Gorky's father dies he goes to live with his mother's family, but even his mother cannot bear to live there. He is thus raised primarily by his grandmother……and grandfather. Although the grandfather is brutal, you see that he is also kind, well sometimes. The times are different; children are beaten, how else can they be taught?! Both grandparents are religious, but each in their own way. Both ways are vividly painted through Alexei's perception. The book shows how this child saw his world; it was utterly frightening and incomprehensible. You absorb his experiences through story after story after story:
I waited until the innkeeper's wife had gone down to the cellar, and then shut the hatch and locked it over her, danced a dance of revenge over it, flung the key onto the roof and rushed as fast as my legs could take me to the kitchen, where Grandmother happened to be doing the washing. It took her some time to find out why I was so delighted, and when she did, she gave me a smack in the right place, dragged me outside and sent me up on the roof after the keys. Amazed at the reception, I silently retrieved the key and then ran off to one corner of the yard, from where I could see Grandmother freeing the captive innkeeper's wife. Then both of them, laughing all over their faces, came towards me across the yard.
"You'll get it from me!" said the innkeeper's wife threatening me with her plump fist, but still smiling benevolently with that eyeless face of hers.
Grandmother took hold of me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me off to the kitchen, where she asked me: "What did you do that for?"
"She threw a carrot at you…."
"So you did it for me? Well! What a nerve. I've a good mind to put you under the stove to keep the mince company. Perhaps that will knock some sense into you.( (42%)
There are stories about everything, but they are all true stories: funerals where live frogs end up buried on top of the coffin, blazing fires, cockroach battles, people crushed under crosses…… Life was hard. One can understand why Gorky, or Alexei Maximovich Peshkov as he was really called, came to sympathize for the downtrodden tramps, factory workers and the poorest of the poor of Russian society. He lived from 1863 - 1936. His book "Mother" was the first comprehensive portrait of the Russian socialist movement. He was a friend of Stalin and was given a "Hero's Funeral" in the Red Square. But you should read this book for the marvellous storytelling, not for a summary of historical events. For that, look elsewhere.
I believe the following quote wonderfully expresses Gorky's view on both life and people:
In recalling my childhood I like to picture myself as a beehive to which very simple obscure people brought the honey of their knowledge and thoughts on life, generously enriching my character with their own experience. Often this honey was dirty and bitter, but every scrap of knowledge was honey all the same. (55%)
This book deserves more than five stars!!! ...more
This book is defintiely going to be "different", but I know this author can do magical things. Maybe I should just be happy with The White Woman on thThis book is defintiely going to be "different", but I know this author can do magical things. Maybe I should just be happy with The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, and leave it at that!
Kirkus says it is a bit slow.... It isn't always good to read everything just b/c you loved one book by an author. I really don't know what to do. I can imagine how the author describes icicles hanging from a body, snow flakes dusting the skin....more
When I choose how many stars to give a book, I simply ask myself did I dislike it (1 star), was it OK (2 stars), did I like it (3 stars) NO SPOILERS!!!
When I choose how many stars to give a book, I simply ask myself did I dislike it (1 star), was it OK (2 stars), did I like it (3 stars), did I really like it (4 stars) or did I find it absolutely, utterly amazing (5 stars). When I am determining the number of stars I will give a book, I do not analyze why, I just make myself honestly consider how I felt when reading the book. I am giving this book two stars. Then comes the hard part, to determine why I have reacted as I have. I don't always know. Writing the review actually helps mu understand my own emotions. It is my emotions that determine the stars.
I assume you have already read the book description. I see no point in repeating them. I will try and explain why I gave this book 2 stars. I definitely enjoyed reading about the wide variety of topics that were discussed. You get everything from Einstein to Winston Churchill to Richard Feynman to Paul Erdös to Xerosis to art to mathematics. You get lots about mathematics. Perfect numbers, prime numbers, probability, mathematical scholars, Hypatia... I could go on and on. There is lots of interesting information to be found in this book. You learn about the couple's escapades in France, Italy, Brazil and the US. There are lines of Jacques Brel's songs, dialogues in French and Italian. They spend lots of time in Brittany, France. I definitely enjoyed reading the French, hearing the Celtic village names that I recognize. I love Brittany. A reader who does not know French will loose a lot.
So if the book covers so many interesting topics, what is wrong? First of all it is extremely cerebral. Secondly, almost too many subjects are covered. There is a lack of depth to any one topic - except maybe mathematics. But I got tired with the mathematical reasoning. In fact the wife and daughter of Philip, who has died, they too get tired of his only and always analyzing everything as a numerical problem.
And he tells her, I am happy. For once he is not thinking of numbers; he is not counting. (71% through the book)
I have not long ago read a marvelous book,The Housekeeper and the Professor, the central theme of which was also mathematics. This book makes mathematics wonderful. It engagingly brings to life relationships within a "family". I never felt close to Philip or Sabine or their daughter, Louise. Sabine's thoughts about her life with Philip, thoughts she has beside her dead husband the night after his death, were not enough to draw me into their lives. Their marriage was clearly rocky at intervals, but what marriage isn't? I do leave the book with the belief that they loved each other. I liked the sparkle in the last two pages. You must read the book to find out what I am referring to!, Perhaps you will not agree with me, but think their marriage was floundering.
No, it is definitely not a bad book, but too cerebral for my tastes. I want to feel attached to the characters. I can be mad at them or I can like them, but they must move me one way or the other. Here, in this book, I merely had fun sharing their experiences. This may certainly be enough for another reader. Lots of interesting topics are covered. I adore Feynman. I want to read a whole book about Hypatia. I enjoy Brel's songs, but if you do not know French, if you do not know these songs, you will miss these delights. Brel's name is not even mentioned. Life in France is well depicted, but still it wasn't enough for me. Maybe I am just very, very picky!
I have read an egalley, in other words an ARC in digital format. Changes may occur before the book is published....more