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National Geographic Walking Prague: The Best of the City (National Geographic Walking the Best of the City)
National Geographic Walking Prague: The Best of the City (National Geographic Walking the Best of the City)
by Will Tizard
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.79
62 used & new from $7.70

3.0 out of 5 stars OK, but there are better options, May 23, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This guidebook is organized to help you walk around the city and see the important sights. It's not intended to be a specialist guide or an in-depth guide. It begins by covering the sights you should see if you're only in Prague for a day or a weekend, if you have kids or a special interest in history. It then covers the key districts and gives you a walking-oriented guide to each district's attractions. The districts are Staré Město, Josefov, Malá Strana, Hradčany, Nové Město and Holesovice.

The front inside cover includes a map of the whole city, and the rear inside cover has a map of the Metro system. The look of the book reminded me a little of the Access series of titles. Colorful look, glossy pages, and interior neighborhood maps with numbered locations and callout pictures of attractions associated with the numbered locations.

The book is small and can fit in a pocket, which is nice, but I was a bit underwhelmed with the presentation. The maps aren't very detailed and they aren't all that easy to find in the book or use. If you want a very basic guidebook with good neighborhood maps, I think the Knopf Mapguides book is better for that purpose, because it has foldout maps that are much easier to both locate in the book and read.

The absolute best Prague guide for English speakers is Prague: ARTEL Style. In a book that is about the same size as this one, Karen Feldman, who has lived in Prague for the last 20 years and owns the Artěl glass shop in the Staré Město, packs in a lot more information and has far more fun with it. If you plan to do any shopping in Prague, her book is absolutely the one you want, no question about it.

But even if you're not a shopper, Karen Feldman's approach is much more thoughtful and comes from somebody who really knows the city. For example, both books have a section for the visitor who has only one day in the city. Both cite basically the same must-see sights, but Feldman tells you where to eat and stop for a drink along the way. Both tell you to visit the Obecní Dům (Municipal House), but Feldman mentions you should be sure to check out the pub in the basement. Of course, both direct you to stroll across the Charles Bridge, but Feldman advises you to do it in the evening, when the lights make it more beautiful and the crowds aren't so bad. The only downsides to Feldman's book are that its maps aren't very good and it's more oriented to the traveller with money to spend.

Feldman's book also has much more detail in her basic information. She has a long but entertaining explanation of the ins and outs of tipping, for example, while the National Geographic guide just tells you that Czechs generally don't tip but they round up restaurant bills. Huh? That's not a helpful explanation.

This is an adequate guidebook, but I'd go with Prague: ARTEL Style by preference, and also have a good map or the Knopf Mapguides book.


Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich
Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich
by Walter Kempowski
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.06
56 used & new from $18.47

4.0 out of 5 stars Looking through a kaleidoscope at four key days in World War II's last weeks in Europe, May 17, 2015
Swansong 1945 is a translation of the last volume in Walter Kempowski's 10-volume compilation of contemporary documents (including diaries, reports, interviews, letters, notes, newspaper articles and more) from a wide range of people, documenting World War II from those individual points of view. The viewpoints range from forced laborers, prisoners and infantrymen with the Allied and Axis armies to generals and heads of state.

During World War II, Kempowski (who was born in 1929 and died in 2007) was a teenager living in Rostock in Germany's northeast. He was a fan of jazz music and not so much of his required membership in the Hitler Youth, where he was punished for his bad attitude. Toward the end of the war, he was drafted into a unit providing messenger services for anti-aircraft facilities. His father was killed in action on the eastern front less than two weeks before the war's end in Europe.

In 1948, while Kempowski was visiting his family in his home town of Rostock (which was by then part of the Soviet occupation zone) he and his brother and mother were imprisoned as western spies. Though he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, after eight years he was released and was allowed to move to West Germany.

In a series of autobiographical novels, Kempowski wrote about his own experiences during and after the war, but he wanted to do something more, something that would present a fully faceted view from those who lived through it. In the 1980s, he placed ads in German newspapers asking people to send him whatever types of documents they might have that would show what they were doing and thinking during the war. The response was strong, and he used a mix of those responses and published materials to compile Das Echolot: Ein Collectives Tagebuch (The Sonar: A Collective Diary), with its 10 volumes published from 1993 to 2005. It appears that Swansong 1945 is the only one of the series to be translated into English (at least so far).

Along with Kempowski's novels, Das Echolot is a key work in what is known in German as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, roughly translated as coming to terms with the past. This word is used, in general, to mean analyzing, discussing openly and dealing with the responsibility of Germany for World War II and the Holocaust.

The subtitle of Swansong 1945 says that this is a collective diary of the "last days" of the Third Reich. The entries reproduced in this volume are all from just four days in the last weeks of the war: April 20, 1945, which was Hitler's 56th (and last) birthday; April 25, the first meeting of US and Soviet troops in Germany; April 30, the date of Hitler's suicide in the Berlin bunker; and May 8, which marked Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies.

By presenting this birds-eye view of those tumultuous last days of the war, Kempowski powerfully demonstrates just how chaotic it was, how rapidly events changed, how difficult it was to come by accurate and up-to-date information, and how differently people viewed and experienced the same events. Some people are fooled by the German government's optimistic reports and rumors about super weapons that will bring Nazi victory, while others record their doubts and even ridicule Hitler and his Reichsministers. If you know your World War II history already, many of the passages will jump out at you. There are several entries from ordinary Germans upon hearing about the Allies' finding the horrific conditions in the concentration/death camps. More than once, the Germans say it's dreadful, but in some bizarre excuse or exercise in moral equivalence, they then point to atrocities of the Poles against the Germans that started the war. Of course, we now know that those atrocities were false, part of a campaign planned at the highest Nazi levels to make it appear that the Poles were the aggressors against Germany, thus justifying the September, 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany. What a terrible demonstration of the success of Joseph Goebbels' cynical and deadly propaganda that even at the end of this terrible war, ordinary German citizens still believed this canard.

Some observations, about the weather, food and the like, remind us that even in the midst of what historian Max Hastings calls "the greatest and most terrible event in human history," daily life goes on. This kaleidoscopic view of the last days of the war makes a fascinating and illuminating supplement to traditional history and, with one caveat (which I discuss below), I recommend it to anyone with an interest in learning about the war's end in Europe.

I do wish Kempowski had included some brief biographies of some of the people whose diary entries are included in the book. A person's name is given and, most often, the caption will say something like "forced laborer," "British/American/Red Army soldier," and so on. But, inexplicably, it says nothing after many names, including names like "Bernard Law Montgomery." Yes, of course, most people who read this book know that's the British Field Marshal, but it still seems strange not to note that. And it should be expected that there will be some readers who don't know who Montgomery is.

The omission of biographic information is more problematic with people like Marie "Missie" Vassiltchikov and Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg. There is no indication that Vassiltchikov was a Russian princess who fled to Germany after the Russian Revolution, worked at various German government offices during the war and was well-acquainted with several members of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg was the cultured Hamburg mother of five children, all living abroad, who wrote a long series of unsent letters to her children during the war. I knew about Vassiltchikov and Wolff-Mönckeberg already, but how many readers won't know their stories? And I'm sure there are other names in the book that don't mean anything to me but whose back stories would add more richness to the reading. I wish Kempowski had starred at least some of these names and put brief bios of them in an appendix.

If it were not for the omission of brief biographical notes, I probably would have given the book five stars.


Bryant & May - the Burning Man
Bryant & May - the Burning Man
by Christopher Fowler
Edition: Hardcover
21 used & new from $13.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The PCU confronts fire, murder, anarchy, corruption--and time, May 17, 2015
The Peculiar Crimes Unit's decrepit offices are located in the City of London, that ancient square mile that was home to London's original settlement and is now jammed full of the skyscrapers housing the metropolis's financial institutions. Hardly anybody lives in the square mile anymore, which makes the P in PCU seem like it should stand for Precarious at times. The PCU has very little in the way of modern technology; nothing like the kind of assets that would allow it to combat the financial crimes that are headquartered in the square mile.

But as this twelfth book in the series begins, a case arises that is right up the PCU's alley. Financial shenanigans in the banking world have led to increasingly large and violent protests in the City. One bank is firebombed, killing a homeless man dossed down under cardboard boxes in its entryway.

The PCU suspects this was murder, not accident, and their conviction is cemented when there are more murders; seemingly unconnected killings, executed in bizarre ways reminiscent of punishments common in more ancient times. As each day passes, demonstrations against the bankers and other presumed-to-be-corrupt wealthy people escalate. Arthur Bryant suspects that the mystery killer will take advantage of the upcoming Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day to pull off even more spectacular murders.

As always, the PCU gets no support--or even respect--from other police units. This time, their particular nemesis is "Missing" Link, who hamstrings them, ostensibly to prevent their interference with an ongoing fraud investigation. Like everybody else, all Link sees in the PCU is a ragtag bunch of misfits, led by the spectacularly untidy and decidedly eccentric old man, Bryant. Like the rest of the force, he just doesn't understand that Bryant's encyclopedic knowledge of the history of London is what will make all the difference in the investigation.

Each member of the PCU faces a crossroads in this book, which gives it a bittersweet feel. After 12 books, the PCU members are like old friends. I hope to see them again, but if not, I wish them well and thank Christopher Fowler for letting us know them.


Enchanted August: A Novel
Enchanted August: A Novel
by Brenda Bowen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Weak on characters, better on sense of place, May 10, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Rose and Lottie, two New York mothers of small children, leave their unsatisfactory marriages for a month-long break at Hopewell Cottage on Little Lost Island in Maine. To help with the rent, they advertise for two others to join them, and end up with young movie star, Caroline, and older gay man, Beverly. Like Rose and Lottie, Caroline and Beverly are retreating to lick their emotional wounds.

As a native Mainer who lived "away" for many years and returned in retirement, I can say I thought the author did a good job of evoking the magic of August on the ocean; the light, the colors, the smells, the tastes and the feeling in the air. It's like nowhere else and it's a perfect place for anyone looking for an escape and transformation. I always worry that books set in Maine will be patronizing, wrongheaded or twee (or all three), but this mostly avoided that. There were a few comments about Maine accents, but at least Bowen didn't give us dialect. There was one reference to the tide going out every afternoon, which made me laugh, but there weren't a lot of errors like that.

The author was less successful in character development. Rose and Lottie aren't always easy to differentiate, for starters. The three male love interests seemed like creeps to me--though, if I remember correctly, that was pretty much true of this novel's inspiration, Enchanted April. It bothered me that the women in the book were so dependent for their happiness on men, and all the more so when the men didn't seem worthy.

Another annoyance is the constant celebrity name-dropping. (Connected to Caroline and to Rose's husband, who writes thrillers that get optioned.) In just the first 60 pages, we get Charlize Theron, Julianne Moore, Richard Linklater, Sam Mendes, Judd Apatow, Kate Upton and Jonathan Safran Foer. I tried to see this as an example of everything Hopewell Cottage isn't--in other words, a device to play up the idyllic escape that the cottage represents--but it was an unwelcome distraction.

Despite its many shortcomings, I still spent a mostly pleasant afternoon reading this breezy, uncomplicated and atmospheric story. Just keep your expectations low, and focus on the atmosphere, and you might enjoy it well enough too.


T-fal Zen Ceramic Chef's Knife, 6-Inch
T-fal Zen Ceramic Chef's Knife, 6-Inch
Price: $22.48

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but a good solid ceramic knife, May 7, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
For the last 25 years, my main knives have been J. A. Henckels knives, which have help up very well over that time. About three years ago, I decided to try out ceramic knives, just for the heck of it. I've picked up a couple of Kyocera and a couple of Danny Seo knives over time.

Ceramic knives are amazingly sharp and I love them especially for vegetable and fruit cutting. You can cut amazingly thin slices with a ceramic knife. For meat, especially meat with bones, the steel knives are preferable--though the ceramic knife does a great job on things like boneless ham and boneless chicken or turkey breast. You don't want to use ceramic knives on bone-in meat because ceramic can be brittle. A ceramic knife can chip and, if bent or torqued, can snap. I've avoided the snapping problem, but I did chip the pointed tip off a Danny Seo knife when I dropped it.

The handle on this T-Fal knife is big and chunky. Although it feels good and balanced in the hand, I don't find it very attractive. One benefit of it, though, is that it keeps the knife blade elevated from your counter or work surface if you set it down while you're working.

The T-Fal is very sharp and slices effortlessly through my veggies and fruits. The blade does pick up the color of whatever you're cutting, but it doesn't permanently stain. The color washes right off. If you like to cut your lettuce for salad, one big benefit of a ceramic knife over steel is that the cut edges of your lettuce won't turn brown.

The knife comes with a sheath, so that you can safely store it without risk of cutting yourself or damaging the blade as it knocks against other kitchen items. But I don't like the sheath. It's so tight that it's actually a bit difficult to slide the blade in it and I'd be worried that it would slip as I'm trying to do it and slice me. I have a knife block in any case, so that's where I store this knife.

To me, this 6-inch chef's knife is a bit of an odd size. I would prefer a longer blade for an easier slicing motion, and a wider blade would both allow me to hold the top of the blade for chopping and would ensure that my knuckles don't hit the cutting board when I'm cutting with a rocking motion.

This knife is definitely a step above my Danny Seo knives. I like my Kyocera knives better, but to some extent that's a matter of taste. I think the Kyocera knives are better looking, and my five-inch micro-serrated knife makes it a dream for cutting soft vegetables, like tomatoes. Also, Kyocera has a free knife sharpening service. You should only need it about once a decade, but it's still a nice benefit.

I'd say that if you like the look of this T-Fal ceramic knife, it's a good choice. Take a look at the Kyocera knives too, though.


KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
by Nikolaus Wachsmann
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.49
60 used & new from $16.95

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An evolutionary history, May 6, 2015
This is an excellent overview of the vast KL system and its history from the 1930s through the end of World War II. Wachsmann's writing is particularly lucid, with a very readable mix of anecdotal and archival/statistical documentation.

The largely chronological organization helps reveal the evolution of the camps. It's easy to have just one picture of how the KL worked, but Wachsmann does a fine job showing how the camps not only had different purposes from each other, but that the purposes and methods of operation changed over time. One example he explores is how the work camps became statistically less deadly in 1943, in response to Himmler's orders to make prisoners more of a labor resource to outside industry.

Another particular strength is Wachsmann's showing how Nazi ideology swayed--and sometimes very far--to serve war expedients and the ambitions of commandants and their superiors. He enlivens his work by illustrating his conclusions with examples of particular individuals, both well-known historical figures and numerous people whose fate was to be swept into the brutal world of the camps.

Wachsmann tackles some of the conventional wisdom about the camps and the prisoners (such as that all kapos were sadists, that prisoners became completely dehumanized, that women formed close bonds but men didn't), presents his views and reasons for his conclusions. Wachsmann has a clear-eyed, pragmatic and logical style. He is no prisoner of ideology in his approach.

Along with another stellar recent work, Sarah Helm's Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, this will be a resource for years to come.


The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel
The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel
by Nina George
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.14

4.0 out of 5 stars If you're in a sentimental mood, it could work for you, May 6, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I love books about books and I enjoyed The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, which this is compared to, so I thought this was a good bet. But right off the bat, I had misgivings about the book. A story about lost love whose protagonist is named Jean Perdu? That's a little heavy-handed, isn't it? And the set-up for Perdu's barge journey from Paris to Provence is almost unbearably maudlin. (I think it would be a spoiler to say more about that set-up.)

It's enough to say that Jean Perdu runs a bookshop called the Literary Apothecary from a barge on the Seine in Paris. He has lived a melancholy life for 21 years after his love, Manon, left him. He prescribes books to his customers like medicine for their hearts, but his own seems to be permanently broken. But as a result of a conversation with his new neighbor Catherine, who has been cast off by her husband, Perdu suddenly casts off in his barge, headed south to Manon's homeland. He is joined, though not through his choosing, by his young neighbor Max, a popular but now blocked writer, and, during the journey, by two other lost souls.

Despite its tendency to obviousness and excess schmaltz, the book has an appeal. It's still a book about books, coupled with the story of a journey, something I also usually love in a book.

I enjoyed the evocative descriptions of the river journey, nature, the villages, and townspeople M. Perdu and his traveling companions meet along the way. It's best when the author focuses on things other than Perdu and Manon; at those times, the story is more lively and spirited. Otherwise, it can bog down in melancholy until you want to do like Cher in Moonstruck: slap Perdu's face and tell him to snap out of it.

If you believe the stars are God's daisy chain, or if you're in a sentimental mood--the kind of mood where you'd like to curl up and watch An Affair to Remember--then The Little Paris Bookshop might be an emotional balm to bask in. But if you're feeling cynical and hard-edged, it might be best to save it for another day. If you never, ever, lose your hard edge, then this isn't the book for you, though I'm sure it will be very popular.

3.5 stars


Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street
Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street
by Alex Zucker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.23

4.0 out of 5 stars Hardboiled behind the Iron Curtain, April 29, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
After World War II, Czechoslovakia had a brief period of democracy until 1948, when it fell to a Communist coup and became a satellite of the USSR. Like so many European Communist states during the Stalin era, party apparatchiks could suddenly find themselves accused of imaginary crimes against the state and lose their positions or even their lives. State Security officials and their informants monitored and reported on activities of ordinary citizens, so that one never knew if co-workers, friends or even family members could be trusted not to be informers.

That's the background of Heda Margolius Kovály's Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street. Helena Novákova, the main character, has her world turned upside down when her husband is arrested and imprisoned and she loses her job at a publishing house. Helena knows that her Karel Novák is no spy, but truth isn't a priority in the paranoid security state.

Now Helena is an usher at the Horizon cinema in Prague, along with several other female ushers, a manager, a concessionaire and a lone male projectionist. When a young boy visiting the theater is murdered, all of the staff fall under official scrutiny. There doesn't seem to be any mystery about whodunnit, but all the other staff members still have plenty of secrets, veiled by layers of lies.

At the same time that we read about the dual lives of the various Horizon staff members, another thread is Helena's attempts to find help for Karel. These two threads come together in an unexpected way. It's intriguing, but the wrap-up is murky and strays past enigmatic to confusing. In a few other places the writing lacks clarity. Overall, though, I still found it a very readable and atmospheric story.

It might seem a little strange to have a crime novel told in hardboiled style when it's set in Prague in the 1950s, but I got used to it quickly, especially since the stripped-down bluntness of the style fits the bleak, paranoid time and place. When you find out that Kovály was herself a translator of Raymond Chandler's books, it makes even more sense.

Knowing Kovály's own story isn't necessary to appreciate this stark story of pervasive falsity and fear, but I think it does add something when you know how close this was to home for her. She and her first husband were Holocaust survivors who made it home to Prague, where her husband became an enthusiastic Communist. He was caught up in the infamous Slánský show trials and was executed. When you know that, Helena's thoughts and actions are especially moving.

If you're interested in knowing more about Kovály, her memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, is stunning.


Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-It Specter Shoe Sac, White, One Size
Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-It Specter Shoe Sac, White, One Size
Offered by Sonoma Outfitters Inc
Price: $18.00
2 used & new from $14.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Lightweight and handy way to keep shoe dirt away from your other clothes, April 29, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a nice addition to the Eagle Creek Specter line of packing bags. What makes this line most attractive to me is their very light weight by comparison to the other sets I have. They are made of ripstop nylon, though, and are sturdy for such a light weight.

The "white" shoe sac is really more translucent than white, with a faint grid pattern. This allows you to easily see what's inside--though that's more of a benefit with the other bags in the line than with the shoe sac.

The sac's dimensions when flat are 16 x 9 inches. Absolutely no problem fitting a size 11 pair of heavy wing-tip dress shoes. You can fit in a pair of low-rise boots and two or three pairs of sandals or women's flats.

In theory, the shoe sac should fit men's size shoes up to size 16 (US, 49 Euro), since that size is 12.5 inches long, but I'd hesitate about that because of how much you could lose from the shoes' height and width. The sac was pretty much maxed out with a pair of above-the-ankle size 11 men's (Euro size 44) hiking boots, and those are 10.5 inches long and took some maneuvering to get the second shoe in, so maybe that will give you an idea of the practical limits of the bag's size.

The bag has a grab handle that is sturdy and stitched securely to the bag. See those two little loops on either side of the grab handle? Well, all I can say is that they're there. I don't have a clue what they're for.


The Truth According to Us: A Novel
The Truth According to Us: A Novel
by Annie Barrows
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Don't expect The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, April 25, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
If you're considering this book, chances are good that you're a fan of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, written by this author and the late Mary Ann Shaffer. I'll just say right off the bat that this isn't as good. Here's why. Both books are character-centric (and eccentric) stories set in small communities. While Guernsey was a tightly-written tale, with a clear, clean plot line, this book is a much more sprawling tale, with a less propulsive narrative and too many stories. Because there are so many stories, I didn't get as attached to the characters and found it easy to put the book down and not feel in much of a hurry to pick it back up. That's a problem in a book that clocks in at over 500 pages.

The book starts well, with Layla Beck, the spoiled daughter of Senator Grayson Beck pushing her father one step too far. She refuses to marry the rich, boring man her parents prefer and makes the mistake of telling her father that it's because she can't respect a man who doesn't work. Since Layla has never done a day's work in her life, the Senator decides to twist his brother's arm to give Layla a job in the FDR administration's Works Progress Administration, specifically on the Federal Writers' Project.

Next thing you know, Layla is on the train to Macedonia, West Virginia, tasked with writing the town's history. She's to be a boarder with the Romeyn family, headed by the strong-willed Jottie, who is already categorized in town as a spinster, though she's just in her 30s. Also part of the household are Jottie's twin sisters, Mae and Minerva (who are married, but live in the house without their husbands much of the time), Jottie's young nieces Willa and Bird and, occasionally, Jottie's charming brother Felix.

The book is narrated by Layla and by Willa, who is 12 years old. Both of them are searching to find out about the lives of Macedonians. Willa is curious about her own family. Why doesn't her family run the local American Everlasting mill anymore, what happened between Jottie and the long-dead Vause Hamilton, what does her father really do when he says he's off on his job as a chemicals salesman?

Layla wants to know about the real history of Macedonia, not the sanitized version told to her by the self-styled town leaders. Her research reveals the less squeaky-clean aspects of that history and exposes long-buried secrets of the townspeople, including the Romeyns.

If the book had been stripped down, focusing more deeply on its key characters, it would have been a great improvement. I wanted more focus on Layla, Willa and Jottie and less on some others. It's not at all a bad book, and I'm sure it will be popular. But you have to favor long and sprawling novels to be the best audience for this one.


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