Book Chat

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Ludwig ConspiracyHaving been fascinated by “Mad” King Ludwig to the degree that I’ve written a book about him, how could I resist The Ludwig Conspiracy? For a true fan of the “real” story of Ludwig, delving into a fiction book entwined with his life is always a bit dicey. Did the author do Ludwig justice? Did he represent him accurately, or at least passably so?

Oliver Potzsch did do a good job overall. There were no glaring inaccuracies about the beloved king, although he did lean heavily on some of the hearsay by servants that led to the king’s questionable diagnosis of insanity. Then again, this book is billed as fiction, so I can’t cast too much blame there.

In “Conspiracy,”  Potzsch combines the mystery of Ludwig’s death into a DaVinci Code-like mad chase across Bavaria by antique bookstore owner Steven Lukas and his sidekick, art historian (and, of course, love interest) Sara. The two explore all of Ludwig’s castles while searching for clues. They also have to dodge frequent appearances of bad guys with guns and other nasty things.

Overall, I found this book just okay. Action/adventure isn’t my favorite genre to begin with, but there’ve been some I enjoyed. This one just didn’t grab me. It didn’t help that the book seemed to have an anti-American bias, with references to “Alabama rednecks” and “overweight American tourists” from Texas sprinkled into the narrative.

You may enjoy it if you’re interested in Ludwig AND you’re a fan of thrillers. Otherwise, you’ll find better pickin’s elsewhere.


The UnderneathMy 12-year-old brought The Underneath to me, telling me I had to read it. How could I say no to that, especially looking at those cute animals on the cover? Especially when it begins so beautifully: There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.

I enjoyed this book, although I suppose in FaceBook-speak I could say, “it’s complicated.”

First, I think the cover is misleading. I was expecting a warm ‘n fuzzy type animal tale. The Underneath is not that. It’s beautifully written, in a literary style with repeated words, sentence fragments, etc. It’s very distinctive and takes a little getting used to, but you will. You’ll learn about Ranger, an old dog who’s lived a tough life that doesn’t promise to improve. He befriends a mama cat who’s about to have kittens, and soon he’s friends with the kittens as well. Ranger is owned by Gar Face, a miscreant who makes Hitler look fairly tame.

The tale of these characters is interwoven with the story of a 1000-year-old snake trapped in a container beneath a giant tree, and a 100-foot-long alligator, and another snake who becomes a human, and a hawk who becomes a human too, and — anyway, it’s pretty complex, but it all weaves together. This was a Newbery Award finalist in 2008, so it’s highly regarded.

Although the book is about friendship and love, it’s also about loss and sadness.  It’s billed for kids 10-14 — just know your child and whether his/her sensitivities can handle several deaths and quite a bit of cruelty. I wouldn’t recommend it to a child who freaked out when Bambi’s mom dies.

And now, with apologies to Kathi Appelt, a little promo in the style of “The Underneath”:

This is a story that stays with you. Stays with you for weeks afterwards. Even though much of the action moves slowly, slower than an eastern snapping turtle. Slower than a yellow mud turtle, a red-eared slider, or a Texas cooter. You’ll form a bond with the characters. Characters you’ll keep reading about, just to see what happens. Do not miss this book. Do not.


Look Me In The EyeLook Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s is a memoir by John Elder Robison. He describes his early years as a decidedly eccentric child with equally odd parents — an alcoholic father and a mother with mental health issues. John was taken to various psychologists, who predicted he’d end up pumping gas or in the army. To be sure, John was quite a character, never fitting in and always playing pranks (often rather cruel and dangerous ones) on others.

He drops out of high school and eventually ends up using his impressive mechanical skills to go on tour working for the rock group KISS. He designs guitars for the group that will burst into fire and more. Later, he works for Milton Bradley, coming up with amazing electronic components for games. But he is decidedly odd.

At age 40, at a friend’s suggestion, he researches and learns that he has asperger’s syndrome, which is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. It’s fairly commonly known today, but back in the ’90s when he learned this, it was not as familiar. Robison has worked hard since learning of this diagnosis to fit in better socially, and from what I know about asperger’s, he does seem a lot more self-aware than I’d expect. He explains his thought processes, which are quite different from those of us not on the spectrum: for instance, when learning someone has died, his first response might be to smile (because he didn’t die, because the person who died wasn’t in his family, etc). He has had to learn that it’s not socially acceptable to smile when learning of someone’s death.

He relates his lifelong affinity for trains and for mechanics (all common among those on the autism spectrum). He also discusses preferring the woods to cities, because cities are full of people, and people make him feel uncomfortable and unsafe. He mentions a childhood ability he had to actually visualize mathematical functions and the operations of circuits — many people on the autism spectrum have similar savant-like abilities (think Rain Man), and Robison feels that these can be nurtured at the expense of social skill improvement, OR social skills can be improved to the decline of specific special skills. Interesting line of thought …

He makes a valid point about asperger’s as an “invisible” disability: My conversational difficulties highlight a problem Aspergians face every day. A person with an obvious disability — for example, someone in a wheelchair — is treated compassionately because his handicap is obvious. No one turns to a guy in a wheelchair and says, “Quick! Let’s run across the street!” … with me, though, there is no external sign that I am conversationally handicapped. So folks hear some conversational misstep and say, “What an arrogant jerk!”

Robison describes his efforts to spare his son “Cubby” the worst of the difficulties he faced (“My life has been filled with lost chances because I didn’t fit in”), even though Cubby has similar tendencies. He tries to help his son by encouraging him to be more social and less inward-focused.

Interesting look into another way of being — although there is quite a bit more technicality in the book about electronics, guitars, etc. than I enjoyed — I suppose that is to be expected given the author’s leanings, though.


The Winter Palace

I have various motivations for reading. Sometimes, it’s pure enjoyment. Other times, it’s education. Learning was the appeal when I chose The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great. I really don’t know much of anything about Imperial Russia, so I plunged in with this rather lengthy book. Overall, I’m glad I did. It’s the story of Barbara/Varvara, a Polish girl who ends up in the Russian Court as an underling to Empress Elizabeth, and also to Prussian Princess Sophie who arrives to marry Grand Duke Peter. The marriage isn’t much of a success, but Sophie does change her name to Catherine, works hard to master Russian, and by the end of the book has staged a successful coup following Elizabeth’s death and has become Empress Catherine. Varava becomes “ears” (ie, a spy) for Elizabeth, and also for Catherine. She tells them things they need to know and keeps them safe among the considerable amount of intrigues that go on at court.

This was a challenging book to read — lots of characters, almost all with long Russian names. I could somewhat imagine life at the Winter Palace and also at Oranienbaum, where much of the book was set. Military uniforms were described often. Still, I wasn’t left with the visually rich impact I might have expected. I would rank the book at 3.5 stars out of 5 — it’s well-written, but to reach “4” I would have had to really look forward to picking it up each day to read. This one felt a bit more like work — not entirely unpleasant work, but work nonetheless. The author is planning a sequel to cover the 2nd part of Catherine’s reign. I doubt that I will be sufficiently interested to pursue that.

Hunger Games #2 Catching Fire, reviewed here.

More of what others are reading at 5MinutesforBooks.

7 thoughts on “Book Chat

  1. Wow! Great reviews. I feel similarly about Appelt’s work and got a giggle out of your review.

    I’ve looked at Look Me in the Eye before but never read it. I wouldn’t enjoy the technical stuff, either.

    Kudos to you for persevering through all the Russian details in the lengthy novel!

    An Alabama Redneck 😉

  2. The book about Asberger’s sounds like ti would be good for gaining a perspective from the inside . That was a great analogy about the difference between someone with an obvious physical handicap and someone with more mental issues and how people tend to think they’re “jerks” when they misstep.

  3. Your reading never ceases to impress me. In general, I read only for entertainment and would definitely not persevere through some of these books. Others, I wouldn’t even have begun reading. Of the three you reviewed today, I don’t think any of them would interest me, unlike many times when I wish I could read most of the ones you review.

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I enjoy hearing your thoughts.