DECEMBER READING: PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd

DECEMBER READING: PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd

Well, there is no doubt that this is a very big book - covering 700 years of that iconic city, and trying to do so in 800 closely written pages. Wow. Big. And apparently this is one of his shorter novels. Unsurprisingly 800 pages is not enough to incorporate a detailed and complete history of the City of Light. I expect the author's greatest challenge was what to put in and what to leave out. Who runs the city of Paris also runs France, so leadership is the dominant thread through the book, forming the background to the characters and their stories. So Louis XIV and XVI, Napoleon, the Gestapo, and the Catholic Church as well as the leaders post-French Revolution feature strongly.  Paris is also known for its iconic architecture - the story of the Eiffel Tower features. The reader learns a lot about the geographical layout of the city from its early  Ancient Rome days and the continuity of  such structures as Notre Dame, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, the main roadways, and above all the the river Seine. This is all fascinating stuff, and the maps at the beginning and end of the book - one of Paris in the Middle Ages, and the other of Paris in the late 1890s - show how this city has grown and moved outward, yet still retaining its core.

Against this historic and cultural detail, the author has woven the stories of a number of families ranging from the aristocratic de Cygne family, the working class Le Sourd and Gascon families, the more bourgeois Blanchard and Renard families, to the Jewish family Jacob. The family tree at the beginning of the book is absolutely invaluable because the author tells the story in the most confusing way possible jumping through the centuries, back and forth in time, introducing different members from the families at different times. The book opens in the late nineteenth century and next chapter we are in the thirteenth century, next chapter a bit later in the nineteenth, then to the fourteenth century and so it goes on. Each chapter introduces new people and plot lines, then the next chapter has other family members meeting new family members of a previously introduced family. Aaagh, gets very confusing!

But, despite all the trickery, this is a very readable and enjoyable book. 800 pages whizzed by, as did 700 years. This is a city that continues to be very high on my list of places to go, and this book has only increased my desire to do so. The author clearly loves the city, but I would very much have liked for there to have been more about the French Revolution - after all this is where much of the modern history of France and Paris itself all started. The chapter on the Terror of 1794 was very good, but I get the feeling the author assumes that all readers have prior and detailed knowledge of the mechanics of the Revolution of 1789, which I don't believe would be the case.

DECEMBER READING: LETTERS FROM BERLIN by Kerstin Lieff and Margarete Dos

DECEMBER READING: LETTERS FROM BERLIN by Kerstin Lieff and Margarete Dos

Growing up in the West learning 20th century WWII history, we took it on board that the British, the Americans and for a while the Russians were the good guys. The Germans and the Japanese were the bad guys - simple as that. History, of course, is always perceived and told from the viewpoint of the person telling it, and often the viewpoint of the other party/ies is minimised, ignored, glossed over or dressed up in a way to enhance the teller's version. We never, ever learnt about the history of the war from the German point of view, from the Germans themselves, and it is only in recent years that the children of those who lived during the war years are now telling the stories of their parents and grandparents. And about time too.

Almost as interesting as the story itself, is the process taken to have the parents'/grandparents' stories told. Often there is so much pain and trauma that many of these stories of survival go unheard. In this particular instance, after some persuasion, Margarete made recordings of her story with her daughter Kerstin, and after her death in 2005, Kerstin took it upon herself to compile the recordings into a book. She also found diaries and photos which have greatly enlarged and enhanced the oral recordings made by her mother.

I can only imagine the emotion that came to the surface during the telling of Margarete's story, the courage it took to open up such old wounds and let out the grief and anger there. As we know war is never pretty, and it is always the civilian that cops the brunt of whatever the conflict is. Kerstin Lieff has transcribed her mother's story, adding historical and narrative detail where necessary.  

Margarete Dos was a child when Hitler came to power, and very quickly it seems he became a figure to be feared and obeyed. She is training to be a doctor when the war starts, but quickly moves back to Berlin to be with her mother. She describes vividly the terror and horror of the city being bombed around her. The brutality of the approaching Russians matches the fear of living under the Nazis, and it seems it is more by good luck than good management that Margarete survives this terrible, terrible time. Her mother is of Swedish origin, so late in 1945, Margarete and her mother finally manage to get themselves on a train supposedly taking them to a new life in Sweden. Instead they find themselves transported to a Russian gulag, where again, against the odds they somehow manage to survive. Their return to Berlin after two years sees them trying to restart their lives, along with millions of other displaced people, and eventually they do make it to Sweden.

This paragraph only gives a taste, and does very little justice to this dreadful time in our modern history. Yet again, we are reminded of the strength of the human spirit to survive, the power of hope, and most importantly that for every war that is won, there is the other side, the loser, whose stories are almost never told, but have as much right to be told.  



So... 125,764 reviews on Good Reads, and another 18,382 on Amazon. How could I possibly add to any of them! Very short review then.

How clever to take the main genre of current TV - the reality contestant elimination show and make it something evil and very, very nasty - a fight to the death that the whole of society must watch, and every night of the week. Plus, the contestants are children, fighting for food to feed their own. As a parent I had no desire at all to indulge my reading or movie viewing time in this contrived and utterly senseless story making.

However, by the very virtue of being a parent, you do become entwined in your children's interests. So now that the second movie is out, passionately embraced  by 16 year old, I thought maybe it was time! And yes I am glad I did. Great plot, terrific characters, lots of twists and turns right up to the last page.

The best part about this novel, and I am sure the others in the series are the same,  is what great heroes the three main characters are to young readers. In an age when young girls feel they have to wear very few clothes and twerk themselves to get attention and young boys feel they have to drink themselves stupid and prey on young vulnerable fellow teens, such fine characters as these Katniss, Peeta and Gale are very inspiring. No wonder these books have been such a hit.

Looking forward to reading the next instalment of Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Off to the movies I go!



Luke Butler has recently been appointed senior pastor at an evangelical Christian youth centre in suburban Sydney. He is in his late 20s, and never known any life apart from the orphanage he was brought up in following his abandonment at birth, or the church to which he has devoted his life to and where he has finally found a family of sorts. He has no knowledge, or indeed any desire to find out about his birth parents or family. Luke's life is one of order, devotion, tolerance and adherence to God and the teachings of the Bible.

Across the road from the youth centre is, in a bizarre situation of polar opposites, a family planning clinic, managed by the very capable, compassionate and real Aggie Grey. Aggie has a complicated back story too, but wildly different from that of the chaste and clean living Luke. She is a counsellor at the clinic, dispensing contraceptive and relationship advice, helping those with gender identity and sexual orientation issues, counselling women with unwanted pregnancies, and dealing with sexual diseases.

The snake on the cover of the book does not need an apple to tell you what is going to happen when these two meet. An instant and dangerous connection sees them both compromising their deeply held values and beliefs. Into this mix comes 16 year old Honey, pregnant, alone and without a clue as to what she should do. She has been treated very badly by the men in her short life, and she is inextricably drawn into the powerful relationship bubbling away between Luke and Aggie.

The time worn theme of two people falling in love at the wrong time in the wrong place is at the core of this novel. And just like Romeo and Juliet, there are myriad forces at play to prevent any lasting happiness. The elephant in the room is 'abortion' and what is seen to be in the best interests of Honey by the pro life and pro choice factions, ie the church and everyone else. As expected, things rapidly spiral out of control, and there is no happy ending in sight.

Despite the deep and controversial subject matter, this is a straightforward and easy book to read. The characters are perhaps a little too stereotyped and one dimensional, but this is an important subject with neither a right or wrong answer that has been intelligently handled.