Monday, September 11, 2017

What I Read on My Summer Vacation, Part Two



Summer is my favorite season, and my favorite activity during summer is catching up on my reading. This time, I have an extra large stack of books to get through because I picked up 25 additional titles at Book Con, some of my favorite authors recently published, and a number of titles about Alzheimer's and dementia are on my list because I'm an administrator for the AlzAuthors website. Here I'll share a few of the books that made me think, made me laugh, and /or made me wish that I had written them.

Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung, by Min Kym

Book Blurb: The spellbinding memoir of a violin virtuoso who loses the instrument that had defined her both on stage and off -- and who discovers, beyond the violin, the music of her own voice

Her first violin was tiny, harsh, factory-made; her first piece was “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.” But from the very beginning, Min Kym knew that music was the element in which she could swim and dive and soar. At seven years old, she was a prodigy, the youngest ever student at the famed Purcell School. At eleven, she won her first international prize; at eighteen, violinist great Ruggiero Ricci called her “the most talented violinist I’ve ever taught.” And at twenty-one, she found “the one,” the violin she would play as a soloist: a rare 1696 Stradivarius. Her career took off. She recorded the Brahms concerto and a world tour was planned.

Then, in a London café, her violin was stolen. She felt as though she had lost her soulmate, and with it her sense of who she was. Overnight she became unable to play or function, stunned into silence.

In this lucid and transfixing memoir, Kym reckons with the space left by her violin’s absence. She sees with new eyes her past as a child prodigy, with its isolation and crushing expectations; her combustible relationships with teachers and with a domineering boyfriend; and her navigation of two very different worlds, her traditional Korean family and her music. And in the stark yet clarifying light of her loss, she rediscovers her voice and herself.

Review:

I had to read this book the moment I read the blurb above. It was a review copy from the publisher. All of my life I've wished to play the violin, in fact, it's on my bucket list. In the only photograph I have of my paternal grandfather, a Polish immigrant, he is standing for the camera in a formal suit, holding a violin. I wish I had had the chance to speak to him about it. He died long before I was born. 

My father gave me the gift of classical music as a child, and the violin parts were always my favorite. So when this book came along I gave it an enthusiastic yes. I was also interested in it because of its glimpse into the life of a child prodigy, seeing as how I am fascinated with people who give their lives to the accomplishment of something great. The book did not disappoint.

Kym's recounting of her acquisition of the Stradivarius is in almost lover-like terms. It seems strange, but as I read her story, her history, as a small child discovering her talent, her family's sacrifices to ensure she had the best teachers, her own sacrifices to achieve greatness in just one thing, rather than mediocre mastering of many things, as most American children strive to do, I understood her devotion to that instrument, one of the finest and rarest in the world. The loss of the violin, which was as necessary to her as her right arm or left hand, is devastating. The story is paced well, leading to that heartbreaking moment.(I blame Matt.) An excellent read in many ways. 


***

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

Book Blurb: Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously-and at great risk-documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

Review:

This is book one in this series, which I actually read second. Taken from their home in the night, young Lina and her family are herded by the Soviet secret police with other townspeople onto  trains bound for Siberia. Their crime? They are members of the professional class, the intelligent elite, and considered enemies of the state. This, of course, is not explained to them. Thus begins a harrowing, horrifying journey, full of loss, death, but also hope and love. Sepetys' prose is vibrant and vivid. She raises complex issues seen from a child's point of view, and explains them with the realities of being both powerless but powered by the will to survive. A riveting, moving read particularly relevant in these times.


***

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Book Blurb: World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Told in alternating points of view and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson's Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein's Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloffthe greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity and love can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.

Review:

This was another riveting read, a continuation of the story above with different characters in different circumstances, although the heroines of each, Joanna and Lina, are cousins. Separated by the Soviets, they each have their own tragic stories to tell. Salt to the Sea is written in four points of view (I include the deranged and creepy Alfred) in brief alternating chapters sparingly written but filled with much detail and emotion. This was a stay-up-past-bedtime book for me. From the first pages I was engaged with the characters and their plight. There were many disturbing scenes of death, but considering the subject matter these were not unnecessary or overplayed. This book is very different from its predecessor Between Shades of Gray, which should be read first. Again, relevant reading for current times. Suitable for young adults.


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