The best thing about going on a big-ship cruise is the opportunity to read books, uninterrupted by phones, e-mails, or pressures of deadlines. We returned yesterday from such a cruise on board the “Carnival Pride” — from Baltimore to Port Canaveral to Nassau to Freeport and back to Baltimore. The first day out in the North Atlantic, we encountered westerly winds of 55 knots, gusting to 62, and rough seas. Thus, it was appropriate that I spent a good part of the day in my bunk, finishing The Proving Ground, G. Bruce Knecht’s story of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart sailboat race, during which boats sank and men died in a cyclone.
After completing this excellent, thoroughly-researched, true adventure, I switched from a subject out of my recent past — sailboat racing — to one from my more distant past — my native country in the heart of Europe, Czechoslovakia. For Christmas, my wife Sue had given me a novel called The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. The center of gravity of the book is a modern house of glass and steel, the home of two members of the country’s pre-war upper crust, a Jewish husband and a Catholic wife — just like my own parents. The house becomes a gathering place for artists, thinkers, and businesspersons who have discarded old-world thinking in order to build “a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people.” If I had not known that this was a work of fiction, I would have been certain that Rudolph and Ilona Heller had been frequent visitors to the Glass Room of this house.
Simon Mawer, an Englishman, shows a wonderful grasp of Czech culture, of the time and place, and he uses the Glass Room masterfully to portray people who struggle to live and love during a period which is frightening and irrational. A great read!