Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: The Red Leather Diary

Book: The Red Leather Diary

Author: Lily Koppel

My Short Review: Very interesting premise, a fascinating story, a peep at the life in New York in the early 1930s.A little slow.

My rating: 4 Stars

Challenge: Jewish Literature Challenge

I came across a description of “The Red Leather Diary” during a Jewish Book Festival here in Atlanta. The cover of the book instantly caught my eye and the story line immediately made me add to it my wishlist. I had bookmarked this book for the Jewish Literature Challenge and I finally got to it this month.

The premise of “The Red Leather Diary” is very interesting. Lily Koppel is a journalist. She lives in New York City and writes for the New York Times. One day in October 2003, Lily walks outside her apartment in 98, Riverside Drive to find a dumpster full of old trunks. The building management had decided to clean out the storage room in the basement and all unclaimed trunks were being discarded. Some of the trunks dated back to the early twentieth century.

In this dumpster, among other things, Lily finds a diary. Little red flakes were crumbling off the worn cover. Many many years ago, this would have been an attractive red leather diary with its own key. The Diary has a page for each date and on each page, and each page had 5 sections for 5 different years.

The diary belonged to a young jewish girl – Florence Wolfson. Florence received the diary on August 11, 1929 for her fourteenth birthday. Every day for the next 5 years, Florence diligently wrote in her little red book. She shared the most memorable moments of every single day for the 5 years until she turned 19. Lily reads the diary and goes on a quest to find Florence. The surprising thing is that she finds Florence, now 90 years old. This book is Florence’s story.

What is charming about the book is the fact that Florence is no special child. I mean with an IQ of 150, she’s gifted and all that… but apart from that, her life is extremely normal. Like most girls her age, she is obsessed with her looks and with boys (and maybe some girls as well!). She spends her days window shopping, visiting museums, drawing, painting, reading, watching plays, etc.

What I enjoyed tremendously about the book was that it gave us a peep into the life of people in New York in the early thirties. 1930s is not that ancient – in fact, Florence is still alive. But it is amazing to see how everything has changed in this short period of time. Everything from the way people think and behave to the most obvious change – technological advancements. One more thing that I really enjoyed were the photographs that were found throughout the book. It was fun to associate the descriptions to real faces and places.

Lily Koppel has definitely put in a lot of effort to recreate the life of Florence based on the few lines she wrote in her diary. Her effort is commendable.

There is one little thing that I must mention here. I found the book a little slow moving at times. There were times when I got a little tired of Florence and had to put the book down and just watch some TV. The premise was very interesting. I sometimes wished that the book could have been a little shorter.
But that might not even be because of the book. I have been in a ready frenzy the last few weeks and it might just be time for me to take a little break before delving into my next book.
Here’s a description from the back cover of the book

“The young woman who emerged from the diary’s pages had huge ambitions, even if chasing them proved daunting. February 21, 1931. Went to the Museum of Modern Art and almost passed out from sheer jealousy – I can’t even paint an apple yet – it’s heartbreaking! January 16, 1932. I couldn’t study today and went to the museum to pass a morning of agonizing beauty – blown glass, jade and exquisite embroideries. April 10, 1932. Wrote all day – and my story is still incomplete. September 2, 1934. Planning a play on Wordsworth – possibilities are infinite. October 12, 1934. How I love to inflict pain on my characters!

What she craved most was to be enveloped in a grand passion that would transform her life. July 3, 1932. Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness – all I want is someone to love – I feel incomplete.”


That was a teaser that roped me in! Are you tempted??

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


bermudaonion said...

I haven't read this book yet, but I'd like to.

Kaye said...

Yes, definitely tempting! Wonderful review as always, Ramya.

Katherine said...

I read it last spring and liked it, sort of. But I thought the book would have been better had Florence written it.

Ramya said...

@bermudaonion - ah! the never ending wishlist!:)

@Kaye - thanks!:) It is an interesting concept.

@katherine - hmm.. I liked reading about the "discovery" of the diary in a dumpster.. I thought it made the story more glamorous.. wouldn't that be lost if Florence wrote the book? But I can't help agreeing with you that her voice might have been better than Lily's voice to describe New York of those days.. hmm..:)

bookoholic13 said...

Oh, this one keeps going on and coming off my wishlist. :) I guess it's back on again... :)

lisamm said...

Good review, Ramya! Our local newspaper had a big feature about Lily Koppel and the discovery of the diary, complete with pictures of Florence Woflson and her reunion with her diary, several years ago (before the book was published) and since then I've wanted to read the book. Still haven't done it but I plan to soon.

Ramya said...

@bookoholic - i can totally relate to that.. I am constantly monitoring my wishlist to make sure that it doesnt become impossible.. so i sometimes take books off it and then I read a good review and it comes right back on!

@lisa - i guess that was a very interesting part of the book.. I would love to find a diary in the dumpster sometime..:)

S. Krishna said...

Nice review! I'm not sure if I want to read this one or not.

Teddy Rose said...

Ramya, you won 'My Little Red Book' on my blog. I tried emailing you but I'm not sure it went through. I've been having some problems with Yahoo.

Please email me with your shipping information within 3 days.

teddyr66 at yahoo dot com

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

This is on my TBR. Was it the narrative about Florence (personal stuff) or the general info about the period that got tedious for you?

I'll be reading it before the end of the month ... will let you know what I think!

Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments on Kirk Curnutt's Spotlight post (re: independent bookstores)

caite said...

love the cover!

Anna said...

I've heard good things about this one. It certainly sounds interesting.

Diary of an Eccentric

Ramya said...

@swapna - well, if you ever read it, come back here and we'll discuss it!:)

@teddy - thanks! I emailed you!:)

@dawn - hi!:) It was definitely the personal life of Florence that got tedious after a while. She did have an interesting life but reading too much about it kinda got to me after sometime..

@caite - me too!

@anna - you should give it a shot.. i am definite you'll like it!:)

bethany said...

Hey friend, sorry I haven't been good at all about commenting lately. :(

I am back at it! So, yes this does sound like an excellent book, and the cover is one of the best I have ever seen. Thanks for sharing your review with us, you are such a great reviewer!

Oh, and YES i did just finish Anne of Green Gables!! What did you think of it!?!? I really had a hard time with Anne in the beginning - she was much too much for me, and then somewhere in the middle I fell in love...completely. I can't wait to get her next book (Anne of Avonlea). Are you going to read on in the series? (or listen on:)