Eva Maze: With Ballet in My Soul

A life spanning close to 100 years is noteworthy, if only because of its longevity. The rich life of a woman committed to a professional vision ahead of its time, filled with glamour, excitement, and adventure, is truly remarkable. Narrated in her own words, this is the story of such a woman, Eva Maze, who, from the time she left Romania as a teenager in 1939, dreamed of being a ballet dancer, and through a series a circumstances, became instead one of the most successful theatrical impresarios in Europe – with a career spanning more than 40 years.

Now in her nineties, Maze looks back at the path and passion that led her from Bucharest to the United States as an immigrant, and then, as a married woman, back again to Europe and Asia, where she found her professional calling.

Set against key historical events of the 20th century, including the building of the Berlin Wall, the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, as well as the rise and fall of Pan American Airlines, Maze’s fascinating past is brought to life through a combination of serious commentary and amusing anecdotes about the risks and rewards of the business side of theater and dance, some of the personalities who were part of those worlds from the 1940s to the 1990s, her own motivation for being an impresario, and her personal life. Her narration is supported by more than 250 captivating historical and modern images going back to her birth in 1922.

Representing artists and companies abroad from a vast array of talent in the performing arts of the time – including The Alvin Ailey Dance Company, The Living Theatre, and The Swingle Singers – this unique woman became a prolific producer of more than 100 different types of theatrical programs from the world of dance, music, mime, cabaret, and drama.

When the publisher contacted me about Eva Maze’s memoir, the stunning woman on the cover caught my attention immediately. After reading the captivating summary, I couldn’t say no to the review request. I was expecting a regular black and white print copy, but when it arrived, I opened the envelope to find a BEAUTIFUL 200 page full-color coffee-table book!

We all have that one neighbor that we want to know more about–she’s lead the most interesting life, and if we could just sit down for tea with her we know we’d learn a lifetime of history. Eva Maze is one of those people, and opening With Ballet in My Soul is that afternoon tea. So you better have a big pot ready, because you’re not going to want to move from your couch until you finish listening to everything she has to tell you.

Eva has been pretty much everywhere. She was born in Romania in the 20s, and then convinced her parents to move to the US so she could see the World’s Fair–THE YEAR BEFORE HITLER INVADED. Her wanderlust saved her family, and from then on she just never stopped globetrotting. Ballet had a great influence on her life, and this book is intertwined with music and theatre and great talent.

But what I really loved about it were the pictures. Usually when you read a memoir, the pictures are a second thought that the publisher tosses into the center of the book. Not here. They are published along with the story, and as I said before, this is in full-color. It’s the kind of book you want to leave around for someone to idly pick up now and then, and glance through–though definitely actually read it. It doesn’t take long!

Moonstone Press provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. Affiliate links included in this post.

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Jennifer Ryan: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!”

As England enters World War II’s dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to shutter the church’s choir in the absence of men and instead ‘carry on singing’. Resurrecting themselves as “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir“, the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.

Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit — a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn’t understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past — we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir’s collective voice reverberates in her individual life.

In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

After all the super intense books I’ve been reading lately, I was in some pretty desperate need for something light and fluffy. And while war is never exactly fluffy…stories about it can be kept light and romantic. That’s how The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is–some big action written into a lovely easy read that would be welcome alongside a cozy fire or on a sandy beach.

There are some interesting characters in this book, for sure–and as with most WWII novels, some pretty strong women. There’s a few men around, but mostly the ladies run the show and all are incredibly unique. That said, there isn’t much actual diversity in this book, which is disappointing. The only attempt at a diverse character is one homosexual soldier, whose only real role is to further the moral curiosity of one of the leads. I liked that soldier…but he wasn’t in the book enough to really count as more than a diverse prop–not what we are going for, authors.

That’s really the only criticism I can give, and while that is a big one, I did enjoy reading the book. It was a nice, pleasant read. I’m not bouncing off the walls wanting to hand this to everyone, but it was a good way to spend two days. I feel refreshed and ready for something that requires more digging.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided an ARC for my unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Paullina Simons: The Bronze Horseman

During the summer of 1941 the Metanov family are living a hard life in Leningrad. As the German armies advance their future looks bleak. For Tatiana, love arrives in the guise of Alexander, who harbours a deadly and extraordinary secret.

I think that maybe reading a book about the Soviet Union in WWII was maybe not the best idea for election week. This 650 page monster took an entire week to read–I couldn’t stay focused on it, and it was so hard to stay emotionally involved when we were having our own…domestic issues.

Long though it is, for the most part, I did enjoy the book. It sort of reminded me of The Thorn Birds or Outlander–not really the subject matter, but just the style of romance. There are so many conflicts going on, nothing is exactly ethical, but you root for the main characters anyway.

I’ve read a ton of books about the British side of the war, the American side, some from the Japanese and German sides. But I’ve read nothing from the Russian front. So this was an interesting perspective, and I really like how Simons used Alexander and Tatiana to frame their lives behind the Leningrad blockade. I will say that sometimes their relationship infuriated me–the dynamic was very toxic in modern day relationship standards, and so it’s very VERY cringey. The sex scenes are hot, albeit sometimes cheesy. It’s just an interesting mix.

It’s a solid 3. There are two more in the series, and I haven’t decided whether to continue on. I liked The Bronze Horseman, I didn’t love it. I’m definitely impatient to move on to something else. But I could see Shura and Tania be a love story that I crave the rest of later on. We’ll see.

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The Railwayman’s Wife

When Anikka Lachlan’s husband, Mac, is killed in a railway accident, she is offered—and accepts—a job at the Railway Institute’s library and searches there for some solace in her unexpectedly new life. But in Thirroul, in 1948, she’s not the only person trying to chase dreams through books. There’s Roy McKinnon, who found poetry in the mess of war, but who has now lost his words and his hope. There’s Frank Draper, trapped by the guilt of those his medical treatment and care failed on their first day of freedom. All three struggle to find their own peace, and their own new story.

Don’t worry, love triangle this is not. At first, it kind of feels that way, but soon it becomes obvious that the story is more about recovery and renewal than the triangulation of those three friends.

I will tell you that there is a lot of death in this book, what with WWII, trainwrecks, and other situations. Normally, such a thing wouldn’t bother me, but reading this during the two days that two black men were killed, and then the Dallas Police shootings…it almost didn’t get read. My brain kept connecting the book tragedies with the real life ones, and I was only making the pain and grief worse.

And maybe it was partially due to the events of last week, but this book will make you grieve. It is certainly not a happy book, though it is supposed to be about healing. It’s perhaps a good one to read if you need to let out a few emotions, or feel something deeply. It has that effect. It’s a beautiful book, just very melancholy. I’d recommend it for a cool, rainy fall day, with a big mug of your favorite tea.

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I won a copy of this book from Atria Books in an Instagram contest.

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven

It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.

Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known.

Chris Cleave has written the most unromantic WWII romance ever in the history of WWII romances.

That’s a compliment by the way.

The Goodreads’ summary above makes it seem all about the love triangle (which really doesn’t exist, by the way…not in the way we think of love triangles), but Cleave dives deep into so many social norms of 1930s-40s that most books of this nature don’t bother to look at.

The author uses historical prejudicial words throughout his narrative. Words like the n-word, mongol, retarded. Words that today are incredibly offensive, but in the 30’s were ordinary in context. But those prejudices are exactly the point Cleave is trying to make. He focuses heavily on the fact that healthy white children were rushed out to the countryside while blacks and mentally-ill children were mostly left to fend for themselves.

We also get an incredible portrayal of PTSD (or shell-shock, as it was known then), from multiple characters–and not just those fighting on the front. We see drug addiction, depression, suicide–and all the horrible stigma that went along with it.

Chris Cleave kicks off #MentalHealthMonth with a beautiful, historical not-so-romantic romance that bears the ugly truth about WWII. Everyone Brave is Forgiven comes out tomorrow, May 3, and while it is brave, it certainly does not need forgiveness.

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NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Releases May 3.

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Tallgrass

During World War II, a family finds life turned upside down when the government opens a Japanese internment camp in their small Colorado town. After a young girl is murdered, all eyes (and suspicions) turn to the newcomers, the interlopers, the strangers.

This is Tallgrass as Rennie Stroud has never seen it before. She has just turned thirteen and, until this time, life has pretty much been what her father told her it should be: predictable and fair. But now the winds of change are coming and, with them, a shift in her perspective. And Rennie will discover secrets that can destroy even the most sacred things.

Based on a real Japanese internment camp in Colorado, Sandra Dallas shares a story of racism versus acceptance, hatred versus forgiveness, war versus friendship. Tallgrass is one of those poignant books that makes you examine your own values and prejudices.

Usually when we read a book from WWII, we see the perspective of those directly suffering:  the soldier, a family living near the front, Jews in a German concentration camp. Instead of writing from inside Tallgrass–a point of view she knew she would have a harder time understanding–she wrote from the side of the white people looking in. The result is a story of a rural farm people fighting ignorance. Some of the town is flat out racist, a few try to be accepting of a culture they do not understand in an environment where they are told that “Japs are the enemies and un-American.”

One thing I really found interesting was that the townspeople were jealous of those living in the camp. They wished their sons were forced to be interred instead of drafted because at least then they would have a roof over their heads. Meanwhile, the Japanese-American boys wanted to enlist willingly. Just such a difference.

Tallgrass is a great example of WWII historical fiction. We don’t get too many strong American stories from the war (compared to European ones), and this is certainly one to add to your list.

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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

When I added my Read Around the World books to Goodreads, of course I started at the top and worked my way down. So, naturally, when I went to request the first from the library…number one showing was Zimbabwe. Clearly I didn’t think that through, but I never said I had to go in any certain order. After all, I technically started in the middle with Norway!

I knew absolutely zero about Zimbabwe when I started When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, except that it is a country in Africa. I knew vaguely the area it was in, but can’t really point to it on the map. That’s the whole point of this RATW journey though, to learn what I did not know.

Sometimes education can be very uncomfortable, and such was Peter Godwin’s narrative. In the US, white over black racism is a HUGE issue (really white over any other race, but specifically the persecution of blacks). As a white person in this country, I have had to work really hard, am still working very hard every day to suppress the racism that society has ingrained in me. I hate it, it’s awful, but I know it’s there and so I just have to keep trying to be better.

Because of that, I wanted to call bullshit on the first half of Godwin’s book. He started talking about the war and politics in Zimbabwe, then completely cut away to talk about his dad’s history in WWII and the Holocaust. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that he was drawing parallels to his father’s Polish heritage to the Zimbabwean persecution of whites and…wait…what? It screamed reverse racism. But that’s not real? Right?

But in the second half of the narrative, he really focused on how the government was tearing down the economy for everyone–forcing former black workers to take advantage of their white employers, shutting down farms so no one can work, whites or blacks, even confiscating animals for “Animal Cruelty,” just based on who owns them. Food and gas were forced into a black market system, and the corrupt government ran on bribes. Still though, the focus seemed to be that whites were being persecuted harder as the government tried to take Africa back from those who had colonized them.

There’s a moment when Godwin tries to buy groceries for his mother and is unable to, but a well-dressed black woman takes the bill. His mother responds with, “Many a time we have done that for a black person struggling to pay.” Everything is turned upside down.

This left me with a lot of complicated emotions–which really, is a good thing. On an issue such as racism, you SHOULD feel a lot of complicated emotions. It should tear you up, and this did. It’s a strong book for someone of my background to read, because it only further educates me on how it feels to be on the other side of the coin.

I do want to explore more about Zimbabwe, and maybe read something from someone else’s point of view. I need to know if this is jaded from a white man’s perspective. I’d like to think it’s not, but…well.

If you have any recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them.

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Fulfills Read Around the World Zimbabwe

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love getting mail. The real kind–not those wads of ads that are stuffed into our tiny boxes every day, not the piles of bills we grudgingly tear open and pile on our kitchen table–but the real stuff, the invitations and packages, cards from Grandma, sometimes even an honest-to-god handwritten letter.

In this age of email, people hardly ever sit down to write anymore. For some reason, stationary stores are EVERYWHERE and we still buy the stuff all the time, because hey it’s pretty! But who really uses it? I have a drawer full of my stationary collection, and some of it is 10+ years old. We tried to get a Tumblr Pen Pal thing going last year, I wrote a few letters, and then it fell off. It just takes so much effort, and postage is expensive.

Still, letter writing is romantic. Before email and texting and even reliable phone connections, post was the way to go. Friendships were made and broken through snailmail. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows share a story full of letters that do just that, and the result is lovely.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society formed by accident one night as a cover-up during German Occupation. In order to keep the ruse going, the Guernsey islanders continued to meet and read and debate books they never thought they’d read. This continued even once the war was over, and thanks to the miracle of “traveling” used books, a column writer in London soon hears about the Society through one of the members. She becomes a pen pal to several of the people from the island and falls in love with the quaint place.

Shaffer began this manuscript, which is formatted all in letter exchanges between Juliet, her editor, friends, and the Guernsey people. However, she fell ill at the same time her publisher asked her to do a rewrite. Knowing she could not do so herself, she asked her niece, Annie Barrows, to take on the project. The collaboration issued a gorgeous book that quickly became one I couldn’t put down. I love books in letter or diary format, and this was no exception. It frames WWII in a very unique light, giving some humor to a dark age, peace where there isn’t much.

My only real criticism is that I could not figure out Dawsey’s age. For most of the book, I pictured him as a kindly old man…which sort of threw off the perspective some. Once I realized he wasn’t as old as I thought, it made much more sense. He is quiet and kindly…but he’s younger than he seems at the beginning, or must be.

It took me way too long to pick this one off of my TBR shelf. If you haven’t gotten to it, move this very sweet book up your list!

 

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Atonement

Ever read a book and have serious dejavu? That happened to me with Atonement. I didn’t know it, but I have apparently watched at least part of the movie. When I got to the library scene, all of my senses started going off like “That’s Kiera Knightley and (SPOILER ALERT) the little girl is going to walk in on them…now!”

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I am not sure I’ve watched much more than that scene though, and without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you who any of the other actors are. So, apparently I need to rewatch!

This is maybe not the most exciting book in the world, but it has that quality literature factor. That “whatever it is” that makes teachers put it on lists for future progeny to read for generations. The writing was smooth and the characters were strong. I liked that we got multiple viewpoints since there was so much conflict going on. We saw the war from not only multiple perspectives, but also multiple timeframes–preparation, during the battles, and towards the end.

Atonement is one of those books that will live on for a long time. Love it or hate it, it is our generation’s literature.

 

Fulfill’s Boxall #81

At the Water’s Edge

Normally, I don’t review books that I don’t finish, but since I had a few loyal readers specially mention that they had At the Water’s Edge on their TBRs and wanted to hear what I thought about it…

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…I didn’t want to not give my opinion.

I’m sorry guys. I hated it. I couldn’t even make it to 25% before I had to stop. The dialogue is nothing but bickering, Nessie is barely a mention about a photo, and the WWII history is hardly even a background. It’s more over the top speakeasy drunkenness than anything else. And while sometimes that can be done really well…this one is not.

Sorry to let you down, but I knew you were waiting on this review.

 

Disclaimer:  NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review.