Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review: The Last Palace by Norman Eisen

The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen 
Release date: September 4, 2018
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group 
Pages: 416
Reading level: Adult 
Genre: Nonfiction
Source: First to Read 
Links: Author • Goodreads • Amazon

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars 
When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the furniture. These symbols of Nazi Germany were remnants of the residence’s forgotten history, and evidence that we never live far from the past.

From that discovery unspooled the twisting, captivating tale of four of the remarkable people who had called this palace home. Their story is Europe’s, and The Last Palace chronicles the upheavals that have transformed the continent over the past century. There was the optimistic Jewish financial baron Otto Petschek, who build the palace after World War I as a statement of his faith in democracy, only to have that faith shattered; Rudolf Toussaint, the cultured, compromised German general who occupied the palace during World War II, ultimately putting his life at risk to save the house and Prague itself from destruction; Laurence Steinhardt, the first postwar US ambassador, whose quixotic struggle to keep the palace out of Communist hands was paired with his pitched efforts to rescue the country from Soviet domination; and Shirley Temple Black, an eyewitness to the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, who determined to return to Prague and help end totalitarianism – and did just that as US ambassador in 1989.
Weaving in the life of Eisen’s own mother to demonstrate how those without power and privilege moved through history, The Last Palace tells the dramatic and surprisingly cyclical tale of the endurance of liberal democracy.

This was a fascinating story by the former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Every US ambassador lives in this beautiful palace in Prague and have done so for many years. THE LAST PALACE takes the reader through the history of this famous building; we learn about its creation, role in World War II, and how it came to be the residence of the US Ambassador. Norman Eisen also weaves in the story of his mother's life as she was a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. This is not the history of one person though, THE LAST PALACE allows the reader to experience the changes in the country though the eyes of the different residents of the palace. 

The beginning took me a bit to get into, but I found myself moving quickly through this rather long book. Norman Eisen does a great job of fully immersing the reader in what is happening in Prague at different moments in history. Otto Petschek is the original builder of the house and we see as it falls into the hands of the Nazis, Communists, and eventually the United States. As interesting and heartbreaking as the chapters on World War II and the German occupation of Prague were, I found myself enjoying the later chapters on the US ambassadors and recent history a bit more, simply because I hadn't read much about this before . From the Soviet occupation to the student led protests, it was eye-opening to watch these citizens who had already been through so much take a stand for democracy and freedom. I also knew very little about the role Shirley Temple Black played in US government. I knew she played a role in diplomacy, but had no idea just how much she was able to accomplish and experience as US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. I am also interested in reading more about her role as Ambassador to Ghana in the future. 

At the center of THE LAST PALACE is, of course, the palace itself and it was an experience to be able to see how the palace survived and endured through all those years of history. I wish that the ending was a little less.. abrupt? It did feel as though the book ended rather suddenly and I was interested in getting more closure on his mother's story. All in all, I found this book to be an extremely well-written and researched story about an unusual subject- a building. I definitely recommend this to any history or political buff. 

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