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Although officially classed as fiction, this book tells the very true story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist, who during World War 2, saved the lives of some 1200 (officially, although the actual number may well be far higher) by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.  It is the basis of the 1993 film, Schindler’s List; having seen the film years ago, when I thought it was wonderful, I would like to see it again, as I believe that reading the book would make me appreciate it even more.

I honestly don’t think that any review I could write would do this book justice, but nonetheless, I’ll give it a go!  The book tells an incredible story of bravado, resilience and determination, under the most horrific circumstances.  Keneally is almost at pains to point out that Schindler was far from perfect.  He was a womaniser who seemed incapable of being faithful to his wife, he drank too much, and he was not above mixing with people who he didn’t like, simply because he could get something he wanted from them.  This latter skill of course came into play to magnificent effect during his mission to save lives, which actually makes it an asset.  And in fact, this just makes what he did, all the more heroic.  It would have been easy for such a man – who counted SS members amongst his ‘friends’ – to use the war to his own advantage, and to profit from cheap labour, but the fact that he chose to save lives, even when it meant endangerment to his own, and when it certainly would have been easier for him to ignore what was happening, just makes the story even more magnificent.  When someone is portrayed as a superhero, we expect them to do good things – that’s what their role is.  But Schindler was not an obvious candidate for heroism.  A hero is most certainly what he is though.

Initially, Schindler just wanted to make money, but as the war proceeded, he saw for himself the horrors being committed against Jews, Poles and Gypsies.  (The famous scene in the film where he sees a little girl dressed in red was actually based on a real event.)  Although the people he employed were officially prisoners, he was kind to them, and the arbitrary beatings and executions which occurred in other labour camps had no place at Schindler’s premises.  He also paid over the odds to ensure that his workers had adequate food and premises, even insisting that his workers were able to sleep on his site, rather than living in another camp and being marched to his premises by SS soldiers.  Although he was supposed to only employ people with the necessary skills for the work, he also took on people who had no such skills, because he knew that otherwise, they would be killed.

Towards the end of the story, when we come to the famous list of people who he moved to Brinnlitz, another supposed labour camp, he actually gives up all pretence at being in the business for money, deliberately turning out substandard artillery shells.  His brazenness was in fact almost his undoing.

The book gives details of individual cases and names specific people who Schindler helped, and pulls no punches in describing the sort of favours he did to ensure that he got what he wanted.  There is a LOT of information given, and admittedly I sometimes had to check back to remind myself who someone was.  However, all the information is essential to get the full picture.  Despite being written as a novel, I was concerned that the writing might be a little dry (it is after all a true story, and I sometimes find that non-fiction can be less readable than fiction).  In actual fact however, it was quite easy to read, and I found myself getting through huge chunks at a time.

If this review has not tempted you to read the book, that’s my fault.  Not only would I recommend this book, I would urge everyone to read it.  It moved me to tears on several occasions, and at other times I had to put it down simply to digest the horror of what I had read.  But it was totally, absolutely worth it.  Simply wonderful.

(For more information about this period of history, or to learn more about Oskar Schindler, please click here.)

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As the title suggests, this book tells the story of Edgar Sawtelle, a young mute boy, who lives on a farm in Wisconsin with his parents.  They lead a very happy existence, breeding and training their unique  and brilliant dogs, known simply as Sawtelle Dogs.  However, when Edgar’s Uncle Claude comes to the farm, things change.  The tension between Edgar’s father (also called Edgar and known as ‘Gar’) and Claude is almost palpable, and eventually Claude leaves after a huge argument.  However, when events at the farm take a tragic turn, and Claude insinuates himself into the affections of Edgar’s mother Trudy, our eponymous hero realises that life as he knew it has changed forever, and he takes drastic action to try and make things right again…

Put simply – I loved this book!  It really is all kinds of awesome.  It did start slowly, and in fact up until about 40 pages in, I was considering giving up on it), but I’m so glad that I stuck to it.  It is a modernised retelling of Hamlet, but is also a beautiful and incredible story in its own right.  The characters are so beautifully drawn, and Edgar makes for a superb hero, in that he really isn’t a hero at all – he’s just a frightened boy whose safe world is turned upside down, and he tries to work out what has happened and put right all the wrongs.  Sometimes he makes bad choices, and they come back to haunt him, and sometimes he loses his way, but I found it impossible not to root for him throughout the story.  The characters of Trudy, Gar and Claude were also very well depicted – there is no black and white with these characters; none of them are wholly good and none of them are wholly bad, but by the end of the book I certainly felt that I had got to know them well. 

On teh subject of characters, it’s rare to find a book where dogs’ characters play such a huge part in the storyline, but it works perfectly here.  I fell in love with Edgar’s pet dog Almondine, and loved the short parts of the book that were written from her point of view (in fact, ti was hard not to cry at times).  The relationship between her and Edgar, and the level of feeling between them will be familiar to any dog owner.  While Almondine was more of a pet, the book also talks about the dogs that are raised on the farm, and throughout the story, we get to know some of them very well, and their individual characters also shine through and add to the story.

It is fair to say that the author is a somewhat verbose and ‘wordy’ writer, and often is so descriptive that two or three pages can pass without anything much happening.  But who cares when prose is as enjoyable as this?  The writing is eloquent and often beautiful, and inspired many emotions in me while I was reading this book.

In short, this book is one of those stories that only comes along very rarely – one that lingers in the mind long after you have turned the last page of the book.  highly, highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This books opens on July 15th 1988, when Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew have just met for the first time, and are at the start of a lifelong friendship.  The book then tells the story of Emma and Dexter through every subsequent July 15th, right up until the mid-noughties.  Sometimes they happen to be together on that date, and sometimes they are not even in the same country, but always, somehow, they are each a part of the other’s life and thoughts.

I absolutely adored this book.  The unconventional format worked perfectly – it provided a perfect snapshot of where the characters were at that point in their lives, and made it easy to pick up what had happened in between each July 15th.

The two characters are so fully developed that I really felt like I knew them well at the end of the book.  They have strengths and flaws, sometimes do stupid things, and often feel like they don’t know what they want to do with their lives – in other words, they are like everybody else.  They are also sometimes embarrassingly familiar and I felt myself wince in recognition at some of the things they thought or did.

Emma and Dexter don’t always seem like two people who would even like each other, let alone become close.  Emma is funny, bookish, earnest, intelligent principled, and yes sometimes, self-righteous.  She is very easy to warm to.  Dexter is charming, lazy, irresponsible and often downright thoughtless – at times I wanted to actively dislike him, but somehow Nicholls manages to keep the character just on the right side of sympathetic.

Other friends, lovers, partners, acquaintances figure in the story, and there are several twists which I didn’t see coming (including one which I couldn’t believe; I had to read the same page three times to make sure that I had read it correctly).

The writing is so fluid, combining plenty of humour with poignancy and sadness – all tied up with an ending that I could never have predicted, but which actually was perfect for the story.

I had heard so much hype about this book that I felt almost certain I would be disappointed.  I was wrong – this is one of my favourite reads so far this year.  If you haven’t read One Day yet, I highly, highly recommend it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

funny, poignant, sad, squirmingly familiar

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I haven’t seen this film since it was in the cinema (10 years ago!!), but yesterday decided to revisit it on the small screen.  How glad I am that I did.  I loved it when I first saw it, and wondered if I would still enjoy it – the answer is an emphatic yes!

Nicole Kidman is radiant (and exquisite) as Satine, a high class courtesan at Moulin Rouge in Paris, a club frequented by bohemians, artistes, writers, who call themselves the children of the revolution.  When penniless writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) meets her, they fall in love…but Satine has already been promised to a rich and powerful Duke.  A love triangle ensues, but even as the lovers struggle to stay together, an even darker force is exerting it’s pull on Satine…

I hesitate to use the word extravaganza very often, but in the case of this film, it’s deserved.  The movie combines, energetic, colourful dance routines, with romance, comedy and drama.  The music is all drawn from familiar 20th century sources, although the setting for the film is Paris at the end of the 19th century (seriously, the songs here are from such artistes as Madonna, Nirvana, The Police, Bolan, Bowie – but all given a new and exciting spin).  The colour and energy radiates off the screen, and there are many laugh-out-loud moments of hilarity.  My favourite scene is where Satine, Christian, and their bohemian friends (including Toulouse Lautrec are pitching their idea for a new show to the Duke, in the hope of gaining his financial backing.

The two leads are brilliant.  Nicole Kidman has never looked more beautiful, and has never been so funny and tragic as she is here.  McGregor too is at his most endearing and makes you want to root for his character.  However, special mention must be made of Jim Broadbent, who played Harold Zindler, the manager of Moulin Rouge; and especially John Leguizamo, who played Toulouse Lautrec.  I have only ever seen Leguizamo in one other role – a coke addled Doctor on ER, and I hated him in that role.  Here however, he was fantastic.  What an incredible actor!

The aforementioned soundtrack is fabulous, and the story plays along nicely with a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy.  If you haven’t experienced Moulin Rouge yet (and if you haven’t, then why not?), I really recommend watching this film.  You might love it, you might hate it, but I doubt that you will forget it.

Year of release: 2001

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pierce

Main cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, John Leguizamo

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Frequently topping ‘best musical’ lists (the American Film Industry voted it the best musical ever made) and appearing high on any list of film favourites, this really is a delightful film that deserves all the accolades it has received.

Gene Kelly is Don Lockwood, a star of silent movies (the film is set in the 1920s), who has to make the transition from silent to talking movies.  For Don this is not a problem, but for his co-star Lina Lamont, it most certainly is – Lina has an incredibly irritating voice, and cannot act or sing.  Additionally, Don and Lina are in a fake relationship, the only purpose of which is to garner publicity.  When Don meets aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) he starts to fall for her.  She is brought in to dub Lina’s voice in the talking movies, but Lina is not happy.  Will true love win out….?

Man films are described as ‘feel good’ movies – this is one film that is especially deserving of this description.  The high points?  There’s just so many; I loved the ‘Moses Supposes’ dance routine, performed by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (who plays Don’s best friend Cosmo).  It’s incredibly vibrant, fluid and so graceful to watch – and makes you smile too.  O’Connor also performs the fantastic solo number ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ where he does the incredible trick of running up the walls and completing the move with a somersault.  Supposedly O’Connor was so drained by this sequence that when he finished filming it, he went to bed for three days straight – only to find upon his return to work that the footage had been lost and he would have to film it all again.  The result however, is breath-taking.  I also loved Gene Kelly’s dance to the title song.  His sheer exuberance and happiness shines through and is totally infectious – and there’s no doubt about it, Kelly is simply mesmerising when he dances.  I found it hard to take my eyes off him.  A special mention also for the sultry nightclub dance number with Kelly and a stunning Cyd Charisse (with possibly the most fantastic pair of legs ever seen on celluloid).

Gene Kelly is simply amazing throughout this film, and Donald O’Connor, who like his character, plays it for laughs, is just perfect as his best friend; Jean Hagen also puts in a great comic turn as Lina Lamont, and a very young Debbie Reynolds is adorable.

Any low points?  In a word – no.  This is a film to watch time and again, and one that surely can’t fail to make you feel good.  A definite 10 out of 10!

Year of release: 1952

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden

Main cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen

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Click here for my review of the 2012 (started) West End Theatre production.

Click here for my review of the book ‘Singin’ In The Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece’ by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar.

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