The Sunday Salon: The Best of Books, the Worst of Books

The Sunday Good Sunday morning! This week I read one of the best and one of the worst books of the year, and one in between.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (the one in between) turned out to be a pretty good book. It started out slowly for me and I wasn't sure I was going to like it. The book takes place in two time periods: one during the siege of Leningrad in WWII and the other in present day Pacific Northwest, focusing on Marina, a Russian immigrant who has Alzheimer's. Dean's treatment of the present day story felt stilted to me at first; I was wishing it was just the Russian story. But either it improved as the novel progressed or I got used to her style.

In Leningrad, Marina works as a tour guide for The Hermitage - a massive art museum that contains some of the world's most precious art. When it becomes clear that Germany will invade Leningrad, the staff and hundreds of volunteers work day and night for weeks, packing up the art (millions of pieces) and sending it off to an undisclosed location. Most of the painting frames are left on the walls. Marina lives with her aunt and uncle and many others in the basement of the museum during the bombing raids - survival is hand to mouth with both food and heat becoming scarce through the long frigid winter. Dean's descriptions of the desperation of the refugees is stunning.

Marina learns from an old cleaning woman the importance of keeping the art alive by storing it in her "memory palace." Marina spends her weeks wandering the museum, recalling details about every painting that hung in the museum -- and even some she'd never seen.

In present day Seattle, Marina is attending the wedding of her granddaughter. Her daughter Helen hasn't seen her for many months and is shocked at her memory loss and distressed that neither her father, Dmitri, nor her brother Andrei have told her about her mother's Alzheimer's. Marina, who had never spoken of the war, begins to reveal some of her life in Leningrad.

Dean's use of the devastation of Alzheimer's is an effective vehicle to weave the two time periods together. Good writing, wonderful characters with a bit of magical realism tossed in. Recommended.

As for the worst -- Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is a book I looked forward to reading. I enjoy witchy stories and magical realism. Suffice it to say I found this book trite and predictable and a bit ridiculous. I can't recommend this book unless you enjoy cliche and pretty bad chick lit. I was stunned by the rave reviews this book got on Library Thing.

To be fair, Garden Spells had a tough act to follow, as I had just finished one of the best books of the year (or possibly the decade), The Girls by Lori Lansens. Rose and Ruby are identical twin sisters. They've never seen each other's faces, except in mirrors. They are conjoined twins, joined at the skull; separation is impossible without both of them dying. This book grabbed me from the first paragraph.

As the story unfolds, the girls are approaching their 30th birthday. Rose is writing her autobiography, which of course, must include Ruby's story too. Reluctantly, Ruby begins to add to the book; neither of them read what the other has written. Rose tells the story of their birth - it happens during a rare tornado in southern Ontario; their birth mother abandons them and they are adopted by the nurse who delivers them. Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash give them a loving home and a strong sense of self. Lovey defends them fiercely -- and will not tolerate self pity.

Rose and Ruby's relationship is complex and touching and sad and lovely. They literally don't see the same things and their stories don't always jive. Their personalities are quite different, and they struggle with the same issues as most children, teens and young adults.

One reviewer thought this book was morbid. I thought it was stunning; Lansen did a remarkable job of staying true to each character's voice and of addressing the unique challenges of Rose and Ruby and still portraying them as so normal in their responses and emotions, as they should be. Another reviewer thought that Lansens had no right to tell this story -- because, presumably, she isn't a conjoined twin--?? I couldn't disagree more. She tells it with great compassion, tenderness, humor and respect. Highest recommendation.

Next up: Olive Kitteredge and Sweetsmoke (an Early Reviewers book).

Have a great week! I am on vacation this week, which doesn't hold quite the same excitement for me as usual, since my retirement is a mere 67 days away!!!!



Anonymous said...

Right, that sells me on 'The Madonnas of Leningrad', you are the third person whose views I respect to have spoken well of it, so onto the list it goes. I'm particularly interested from the point of view of the Hermitage. They have the one painting (a Picasso) that I really covert. Did you know that the eleventh commandment goes 'Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour's (or in this case the Hermitage's) Picasso? It's only a small one. I'm sure they wouldn't miss it.

Jill said...

I have seen some glowing reviews of the "Madonnas of Leningrad," and thought it sounded intriguing. Thanks for convincing me!

Your description reminds me of "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks. Have you read that? It's about the Sarajevo Art Museum and how people throughout history save historical treasures through times of war. An excellent read if you haven't gotten to it.

Enjoy your Sunday!

Beautiful Witch said...

I have Garden Spells on request at the library. I enjoy magical realism too and I'll be interested to see how the book goes, given your review! Congrats on your upcoming retirement - I envy you. :)

John's comments said...

They look interesting books. My Holiday from Hell and Books from Heaven post.

Marie said...

I am so with you on Garden Spells. I hated that book so much I threw it down and gave it away on my blog. I was also surprised at the rave reviews it got. Yuck! :-)

Kathleen said...

Hmm 'The Madonnas of Leningrad' sounds quite good :)

Irish said...

Leningrad sounds like a good book. I might have to look into this one. I need to get my reading under control first though. Need to stop flitting about so much between multiple books...and I need to stop the steady flow of new books from the library. I have far more borrowed then I could ever possibly read right now!

Your reading pace is pretty how about we switch places. I retire for you...and you work for me?

SmallWorld at Home said...

I must say that The Girls sounds fascinating!! I'm going to have to add it to my TBR list.