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Misha by Barbara Aria

Misha

For such a superstar of the dance world, there are surprisingly few biographies available about Mikhail Baryshnikov.  For me, however, Misha turned out to be the perfect book about the famed dancer.  I was looking for a broad sweep of his life, who he was and what drove him to defect to the United States.  I wanted to know how he adapted from his world of classical Russian ballet to all the varied modern forms of dance that he ventured into.  I knew that he eventually became the Artistic Director of ABT (American Ballet Theater), and I was curious about his effectiveness there.  This book is not an in-depth study of Baryshnikov’s personality – he seems to be a private person, and that was fine with me.  So for me, this book checked all the boxes, and Aria proved to be a capable and talented writer, which definitely helps to make this book interesting.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1989
214 pages

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go Bernadette

I’m happy to jump on the praise bandwagon with this one!  This is one of those books where reading about story line won’t necessarily draw you in, but I promise that once you begin the first chapter of this book, you’ll be hooked!

Bee is a bright teenager who attends an elite middle school in Seattle.  Her father is a bigwig at Microsoft and her mother, Bernadette, is a famous architect now living a reclusive life as a stay-at-home mom.  They live in a crumbling mansion that was once a former dormitory, and battle a crazy neighbor and school parents, whom Bernadette refers to as “gnats.”  The chaos begins when the family plans a trip to Antarctica (a reward for Bee’s perfect academic record).

This is a fun, hugely entertaining novel, and not to be missed!  So glad I picked it up!

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
330 pages

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Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

Enchantments

Set in early 20th century Russia, Enchantments is the story of Rasputin’s daughter Masha, and her relationship with the young Romanov heir Alyosha.  The revolution is underway and the royal family is under house arrest.  Masha’s father has been murdered and their own fates remain unknown.

I enjoyed learning about this young woman who escaped the fate of the Romanovs, and Harrison’s portrayal of a tender relationship between two young people who try to find love and friendship in the midst of impending doom.  It was a good effort, although there were times when the story lacked fluidity and seemed a bit dry.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
314 pages

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Heimat by Shirley Wegner Nitschke

Heimat

In the 1830’s, German immigrants began arriving in Russia, chased out of their homeland by crushing taxes and military conscription.  The emperor’s wars were taking it’s toll on the people, and they’d had enough.  Queen Catherine of Russia had new lands to settle and the feudal system was coming to an end.  They wanted the enterprising Germans to cultivate the rich, black land of Bessarabia and the Black Sea, to promote the Russian economy.  The Russians promised land, seed, tools and the freedom for the Germans to create communities of their own – communities where the German language, culture and values thrived.

In Heimat, Shirley Wegner Nitschke creates a work of fiction around the true history of these Russia Germans.  It is actually the first book I’ve read about this group of people, and it is of particular interest to me because my grandmother’s family were German from Russia immigrants.

While the promise of this new land in Russia held much hope for them, the Germans quickly realized that promises were broken over and over again.  It took years for them to receive the seed and tools promised, and once they created successful farms and villages, the Russians demanded more and more from them.  Their tight knit German communities eventually were required to speak Russian, and the boys they sought to protect from conscription, were drafted into the Russian army.  They had no rights – the Russians ruled by “might makes right.”

By 1870, their freedoms were so eroded that Germans started leaving Russia by the tens of thousands, but it wasn’t easy to leave.  They literally had to sneak out, evading capture or worse – being shot.  Nitschke doesn’t leave it at that, either.  She describes what eventually happened to the Germans to stayed in Russia – the arrests, the gulags and the starvation.  The early 20th century was a dangerous time to be in Russia, particularly if you were a successful immigrant.

Nitschke’s work made me realize the dangers my ancestors risked, and how their courage enabled me to live a life of privilege as an American today.  If they had stayed in Germany or Russia, I would likely not even exist.

Nitschke is not a professional writer and her style lacks maturity.  But I did enjoy the book very much and hope to read more about German Russian immigrants in the future.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
417 pages

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This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich

This Cold Heaven

After spending seven seasons in Greenland, Gretel Erhlich imparts her experience and the history of this icy island in This Cold Heaven.  I am torn with this review.  Ehrlich is definitely a gifted writer:

We flew up the sleeve of the 106-mile long Kangerlussuaq Fjord.  The water was black and the mountains were brown, ending in broken snow-covered peaks.  Streams threaded through the creases in three-billion-year-old rock, the result of roiling magma that cooled into gray.

I would be carried away by her beautiful prose, thinking “Yes!  I could see myself in Greenland!” only to remind myself that 1) it is nothing but snow and ice, 2) the temperature is 25 below zero, and 3) there is no sun at all for nine months of year.  And despite all the lovely verse, Erhlich doesn’t really share any charming or funny stories of her time there.  Nearly half the book is about the early 20th century explorer Knud Rasmussen, taken from his journals and stories about this Greenlandic legend from natives.  I don’t mind learning about Rasmussen, but the level of her exposition should have been left to…well, a book about Knud Rasmussen.

I learned a few things about Greenland that I didn’t know.  It’s population reflects the Danish settlement and it’s Inuit natives.  Dogsled is a major mode of transportation, and the dogs are indigenous to Greenland, other breeds being banned from its shores. Greenlanders eat a lot of seal meat.  The most humorous part of the book is the story of naming Greenland itself – the early Viking explorer Eric the Red named this island of ice and snow Greenland in the hopes of encouraging settlers.  Imagine the horror in 985, when the first colonists arrived (after a dangerous and harrowing journey) to discover the fraud that had been perpetrated against them.

I’m glad I read this book because it’s always good to learn something new.  Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book.  Maybe you need to be an anthropologist, or snow and ice lover, to truly appreciate it.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2003
402 pages

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Chateau Of Secrets by Melanie Dobson

Chateau Of Secrets

Chloe Sauver is the granddaughter of a woman who played a role in the French Resistance during World War II, and the secrets arising from her activities are about to come to light.  In Chateau of Secrets. Melanie Dobson weaves a story as unputdownable as it is unforgettable, traveling between the present day and the war torn French Countryside under Nazi occupation.

This book was wonderful on so many levels.  First, I love historical fiction and am fascinated with World War II stories.  I have read a lot, and rarely do I run across some historical element that is new to me.  Dobson’s revelation of German Jews serving in the Wermacht was definitely something I had not heard before, and I appreciated yet another recent read depicting the war from a German point of view (although the whole book is not from that angle).  As was pointed out in A Higher Call by Adam Makos, not all German soldiers were bad, and sometimes they became your ally.  I also enjoyed the back and forth between the present day and World War II (something that is also unusual for me), because it highlighted what should be truly important in our lives.  Lastly, I found it refreshing that faith played a role in the lives of Dobson’s characters.  Most books are either meant to be religious fiction or else they have zero mention of religion at all.  I liked the fact that Christian values were important to the people in the book, because that is a real part of many people’s lives.  Kudos to  Dobson for managing to include it without coming across as terribly cheesy.

I loved this book – it was a perfect way to kick off the summer.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
400 pages

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