The Bookworm's Library

A room without books is like a body without a soul -- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Tag: World War II

The Hidden Life of Otto Frank by: Carol Ann Lee

Review:

Most people have heard of Anne Frank and her immortal diary — a haunting reminder of the Holocaust years.  In some ways Anne became the voice of the Holocaust and the catalyst for an entire genre of literature recording the events during the Nazi bloodletting of mass genocide.  This is a book frequently found in literary required reading lists and sets a standard for autobiographical writing.  But many of us forget that there is a story behind the diary and the other lives, which helped shape the tragedy of the Frank family.  Lee explores the events that so drastically altered the life of this family and how those events actually began and evolved.  

Lee documents the life of Otto Frank — Anne’s father — and his professional world in business prior to the Nazi occupation.  It is within this context that the earliest stages of this tragedy actually started.  One of the greatest mysteries of what happened in those last days prior to arrest is who betrayed the family to the Nazi’s and why.  Lee does a great job of researching and presenting the documents and historical record of Otto Frank’s life and his business interactions with others.  She opens the door into how the business world can so dramatically impact on personal lives of not only an individual, but a family as well.  Her research into this topic adds a great deal of depth to the history and gives us an insight into why the family needed to go into hiding and how they were able to make the arrangements in a time when absolute secrecy was required.  It also explores how those willing to hide the Frank family were more than just neighborhood good Samaritans.  Rather, it was Frank’s business associates who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and risk everything to protect their business associate, friends and families.  But it was also some of these relationships that would betray everything they professed, to gain favor in the eyes of the ruling Nazi party.  Essentially — this is the adult account of the Frank family tragedy and why it happened the way it did.

This book is more than just a history of this posthumously well known family.  It also explores the significance of sacrifice and the role it played so often, in so many forms, during the Nazi years.  It gives the reader a renewed hope that even in the moments of absolute tragedy — there are those that make life worth living.  There is still good in the world, such that it can balance out much of the evil that exists.  Those the most closely associated with the family are the first of what would ultimately be many, who remind us that there were and are still people in this world that hold tenaciously to moral values and ethical standards.  But it does so in such a way so as not to suggest that these heroic individuals are perfect.  Rather — like those that betrayed the Frank family — they are simply people willing to act on what they truly believed.  It is through these actions that we are able to make judgments about the people of the time and those most closely associated with this particular Holocaust account.  

The writing is well presented and done so in such a way that it isn’t a dry, boring history book.  Part of that may come from the subject material.  I have found that frequently when dealing with an emotionally charged issue — writing tends to take on an immediate and engaging quality.  It is hard to not connect with a book, when you already demonstrate strong opinions regarding the issues.  This book is a manifestation of this.  But, more than that, it also demonstrates a powerful writing style that is both informative and fulfilling.  I really enjoyed reading about new aspects of this history, which help to give depth and perspective to the full magnitude of this family’s struggle.  The guilt that would ultimately consume Otto Frank following his survival of the concentration camps is a testament that this time and these events were not without lasting scars that continue to haunt our world today.  Lee is eloquent and well versed in her subject matter and has a real gift for presenting it to all types of readers.

Sophie’s Choice by: William Styron

Review:

This is a book that I was assigned to read through one of my undergraduate English courses.  It was an exploration of character development, plot devices and metaphorical representations of true events.  For all of this — it is a book that still left an indelible impression, which will undoubtedly stay with me.  Like many books based on the Holocaust, this one is elegant, haunting and powerful.   But my response to the book was both good and bad; in the end, I came away uncertain of how I felt about the whole thing.  

The writing style is the first thing that stuck out to me.  This is particularly true, considering it was an English assignment.  Sometimes, I think professors look for the most challenging reads — in order to drive students nuts.  It is frequently impossible to determine what the professor expects from you and how they feel about any given book.  Add to that a book that is challenging in itself — and you have a recipe for disaster.  I found the book to be overwritten.  The prose are heavy handed and oppressive at times.  More than once I found myself pleading with Styron to just move on.  He is heavy into description — but the points he chooses to describe almost seem to detract from the overall story.  One term I have seen used for this book is patronizing.  While I didn’t find it patronizing — I certainly felt manipulated into interpreting things from Styron’s opinions, more so than my own experience and understanding.  The plot is pretty basic and even predictable.  The stories out of the Holocaust are both horrifyingly monotonous and deeply, personally individual at the same time.  The same horrors over and over — while the people whose lives were irreparably altered are devastating in scope.  Styron does manage to capture this feel to troubling effect.  The reader comes away disturbed at what Arendt labeled “The Banality of Evil” in her seminal work Eichmann in Jerusalem.  The choice is predictable and the results are foreseen long before the culmination of the story.  

This book is quite interesting, however, in the metaphorical use of characters as a representation for the cultural backgrounds that went into making up the Holocaust.  While I had varying responses to the individual characters — their representational allusions were quite compelling.  The volatile love affair between an abusive Jewish Nathan and a haunted, broken Polish Sophie is a great insight into the troubles that nearly tore Europe apart.  The relationship between these two characters is a graphic exploration of the volatility produced when these two backgrounds came together.  With vastly differing political opinions, as well as strongly divided experiences — the relationship is an interesting study on characterization.  Both individuals coming from a stigmatized nationality — they are both highly dysfunctional.  When they combine — those dysfunctional personalities are destructive in the extreme, in a perversely strange kind of love.  

Stingo, the narrator, drives me crazy.  He seems so removed from the story — and yet constantly right in the middle of the action.  There just doesn’t seem to be any emotional engagement on his part.  Even when he falls in love with Sophie, he seems to be removed from the entire situation.  He is simply telling a story — making it difficult for the reader to fully connect with the book.  His insights into the motivations of all the characters make it hard to identify with them — and even harder to connect with him.  He is simply a passing entity that appears to be sitting on the sideline of a Shakespearean tragedy — waiting for the inevitable culmination of devastation left in the wake of star crossed lovers.  

While Nathan is a highly engaging and believable character — his volatility is amplified by Sophie’s complete dysfunction.  Sophie comes across as a broken doll that needs to be handled with extreme caution because her breaking point is never much beyond the next paragraph.  She is beyond fragile — she is a previously broken glass.  All of her fracture and fault lines are apparent and obvious — even if you don’t fully understand where they come from.  She is more than an emotionally compromised character.  She is disconnected on a very elemental level, which leaves the reader removed from her impetus.  

Generally — this is a take it or leave it book.  For those that really don’t like Holocaust literature — this is a guaranteed dislike.  For those that don’t mind, or even enjoy reading this type of subject — this is one that will come down to writing style.  Styron certainly has a distinctly unique writing style in both plotting and character development.  Ultimately, it is a question of if you like the style or not.  

The Rape of Nanking by: Iris Chang

Review:

This is one of those histories that is more than just difficult to read.  As a student of World War II and the Holocaust — I will be the first to admit that frequently the wider issues of World War II are overshadowed by the genocide of the Nazi concentration camps.  This book is a classic example of that assertion.  I have heard that the term genocide grew out of the World War II era and came to define how we judge events occurring under the cover of war.  After reading this book, I came to realize that this is more true than most people stop to think about.  

Two years before the aggressive rise of Nazism, the Japanese invaded mainland China and devastated the city of Nanking, with horrifying results.  Chang presents a gripping insight into these particular atrocities.  This is not an easy or light read.  It deals with some very barbaric times and portrays man in his most horrifying light.  The events of this time — frequently lost in the shadow of the holocaust, proved to be the beginnings of an era of genocide.  Change provides a very real and horrifying look at this Japanese invasion.  

While this is not a first hand account of the events of the Nanking massacre, Chang does base the whole presentation on the experiences of her grandparents — who survived this event.  This connection, coming from stories passed down through the family, gives this book a very immediate feel, as well as a troubling sense of personal experience for not only Chang, but also for the reader.  

This book deals with a very violent time and event.  Chang does not shy away from the violent history.  That makes this a very troubling read.  In fact, it is not a read that is easy to get through.  The graphic nature of many of the events are troubling in the extreme.  But this does not detract from the power of the history.  As an avid reader of Holocaust literature, even I found this particular book disturbing.  There are very graphic images of rape, killing, and horrifying atrocities, which makes this a book one that is not recommended for sensitive or younger readers.  

Chang, however, is a very powerful writer.  I found myself forgetting I was reading because the power of her writing is so engrossing.  She had a real gift for eloquence and vivid writing.  Frequently, readers will tell you that their favorite thing about reading, is finding a book they can get into so far they actually live the experience.  This book is a great example of how powerful this experience can be.  It is this experience that probably makes this book so difficult to get through.  It is emotionally charged, and very in your face in how it presents bald, cold and very troubling facts.  

This is a book that I would suggest caution going in.  It is a deeply troubling subject matter.  But it is one that I consider insightful and powerfully written.  I highly recommend this read — but I will also be the first to admit that it isn’t a book for all readers.  

Skeletons at the Feast by: Chris Bohjalian

Review:

I love to read historical fiction.  In fact — it is my preferred genre, as I love the realistic historical backdrops of the stories and characters.  One of my preferred time periods for this genre is that of Word War II.  I have always been captivated with this history because there are so many philosophical question about man’s nature –and what he is truly capable of — that originate out of the subject matter.  But, it is also one of those time periods that even I can only take in incremental doses.  The magnitude of the horror, pain, suffering and atrocities really become overwhelming after a certain point.  However, there are also shining examples of heroism, endurance, compassion  and humanity that dot the tragic course of this historical time.  For these reasons this is a book that I really had mixed emotions about.  

I think what is the most striking thing about this book — for good or bad — is its over the top handling of everything about it.  Bohjalian really uses a heavy hand to develop his work, which makes for a real challenging read — in  the extreme.  One tool he uses in this approach is the graphic nature of everything about the book.  Historically speaking — if you read books based on war periods — you expect a certain amount of horror, troubling images and even more troubling subject matter.  But Bohjalian’s graphic portrayal of events in this book is more along the lines of giving the reader a serious case of post traumatic stress disorder — rather than an engrossing read.  Rape scenes, war crimes, atrocities, not to mention the abuses perpetrated against the Jewish population are all extremely graphic.  This is a book I would strongly caution against for younger reader — or those that are highly sensitized to extreme violence, blood and horror scenes.  

Another thing that I found to be a real let down in the book, was the evolution of the characters. For all the graphic portrayal  of the horrors of war torn Europe during the Holocaust — the characters come across as pretty inconsequential.  There is no evolutionary growth, no evidence that events and situations changed —  or had any impact on them at all.  Really, they are very flat in comparison to the catastrophic, defining events that are raging around them.  It is almost as if Bohjalian spent so much time recreating  the horror and graphic images of the war that he failed to give the same attention the characters that learn to endure these atrocities.  All of them are struggling with life  changing loss, pain, suffering and shock.  But there is little change in their basic characterization. They are simply static throughout.  

On the positive side of this one, Bohjalian does demonstrate a real gift for putting the reader right in the middle of the story. (Even if this is a compulsory introduction into horror central.)  His description (of events at least) are so real that I came away really struggling with a haunted feeling of near depression.  Even if the characters display little evidence of significant changes throughout the book — I closed it almost gratefully.  Haunted is the best description for this book.  As a reader, I couldn’t wait to put it down — but I couldn’t quit reading either.  

This is not a read for the faint of heart.  Nor is it something that I would recommend as a light summer vacation read.  This is one that needs a disclaimer –and perhaps even an age warning — going in.  It is a harrowing read that is both compelling and horrifying all in one.  

The Book Thief by: Marcus Zusak

Review

Wow!  This is one of my favorite books because it is so well written.  This is a story of beauty, horror, resilience and everything that is both good and bad about the human condition.  It is really one of the best fictional stories I have read about the World War II era.  Not to over-propagandize this one, it really does belong on a must read before you die list.  It is also one of those that — like Schindler’s List — you really don’t want to read, but know you have to.

One thing that sets it apart as a really unique story is through the narration.  Told through a third person narrative of the voice of death, it really gives insight into the troubling events, both large and small, that made up the horrors of World War II.  As strange as it may sound, the voice of death brings depth, insight and wisdom regarding humanity.  The weaknesses, strengths valiant nature and depraved character of men are all portrayed as aspects of individuals — and more significantly they exist in all people.

Another thing that I really loved about this book is Zusak’s use of color.  The red, black and white of the Nazi flag become central to the entire story.  These colors create the setting, the action and all the drama of the backdrop to a powerful story.  Each of these colors start with one interpretation and evolve into many different perceptions throughout the entire story.  They change and impact the story in subtle, graphic and powerful ways — giving both depth and reality to Zusak’s writing.

Each of the characters live and breath, making a powerful narrative.  These characters are drawn so as to make it easy for the reader to engage and step into the reality of this time and place.  The characters each portray the various ideologies, beliefs and characteristics that ultimately came together to cause the occurrence of the Second World War.  Liesel is particularly powerful, in that she is an orphan of communist parents, who has been placed in an adoptive family, where she first comes to know the power of relationships and love.  She evolves into a very sympathetic character who brings the rest of the supporting characters into a powerful foundation for the book.

Most who are familiar with the Nazi era, know of the reputation and role that books played in this troubling time in history.  This is the reason that books play a central role of the story.  Liesel’s passion for books, from the first one she steals to the last one she rescues, are all powerful commentary on the events that happened in Nazi Germany.  From the Handbook for Burials to the book rescued from the Mayor’s troubled wife — they each help her to form strong relationships with a vast array of characters, all of whom are both victims and heros in the the evolving story.

This book is really a must read.  It is elegant, well written and very much worth the time and effort.  It is a book that changes lives and beliefs — while challenging perceptions that we each hold of the human experience.