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Skeletons at the Feast by: Chris Bohjalian

Ok — there are some books that you really want to love — and the author just doesn’t quite deliver.  And yet — they aren’t bad enough to put down, but frustrating to continue on through the end.  And then there are some books that you really don’t want to like — and they turn out to change your perceptions dramatically.  And while like isn’t the right description for these books — they will impact at various levels.  This book has been on my too read list for quite some time.  It is one of those that I always look at and decide no — I don’t really want to read it.  And then every time I am in a library, bookstore, or browsing audible or Barnes and Noble’s website — I just keep coming back to it.  It crops up in strange places, and lots of people recommend it. So, I finally had to relent and read it.  There is probably one description for this book — graphically disturbing.

For those with significantly conservative leanings and strong opinions about the concept that some material just doesn’t belong in print — this is not a book for you.  This book stays with you partially because of the graphic shock effect that Bohjalian uses.  Most people, when they think of World War II think of the Holocaust.  They have almost become synonymous.   However, this book takes a different approach.  This one looks at it through the eyes of those who belong to the rapidly dying Third Reich.  Boxed in by the Russians on the East and the British and Americans on the West — the German general populace is trapped in the middle.  And Bohjalian paints this hunted people in the most graphic of detail.  From horrifying rape scenes to the hopelessness of a defeated army in battle — this book haunts the reader through exposure in the most horrifying of ways.

There are strange issues of rage that come to the surface in this book as well.  Everyone is angry.  And yes, I understand this is a book about war torn Europe — and the defeat of the German nation.  But the anger, while not unjustified, seems misplaced somehow.  It is hard to describe.  I get some of the anger — like the women in the forced death march, after untold horrors of the various concentration camps.  And I get the manifestation of Callum’s righteous indignation of the atrocities — as this is an expression found time an again among the allies, as the camps were slowly, one by one, liberated.  But this isn’t about the magnitude of the atrocities, so much as about the defeat of Germany’s army and the strangely superior animosity of the German people, which manifests as anger.  It just seems misplaced to me somehow.  And yet that anger is both latent and impotent — which eventually breaks down to the point of putting the struggles and tragedies of the Germans on a par with that of the Jews.

The characters seem really strange in their development as well.  From Urry’s overwhelming anger and contempt for the Germans who inflicted so much pain and eventually finds its express by ultimately driving him to become what we would define today as a serial killer — war or not; to Callum’s apparent disinterest in the war effort, or even being the paratrooper he was trained to be.  This of course results in his strange disconnect from most of the story — while still playing a leading role.  Anna’s naivete becomes absolutely irritating throughout the entire story.  Where everyone moves towards the recognition that the Germans are not innocent victims in this horrifying situation — Anna just can’t get to that realization.  She seems to float on the insulated perception that the allies are completely unjustified in their actions throughout nearly the entire book.  And when she does finally wake up — it isn’t a sudden ah ha moment, so much as a passive acceptance that yes atrocities have occurred but the response of the opposing armies is completely out of proportion in comparison to what may have occurred.

The sex scenes are both horrifying and completely out of place.  I get that people will turn to sex as an expression of extreme duress among other things — but this seems completely off the wall in its placement and occurrence.  Combine that with the complete inappropriateness of the timing for some of the characters, as well as the graphic presentation of rapes for others — and the reader simply comes away with a horrifyingly disturbed feeling about the whole thing.  It isn’t tawdry so much as downright creepy.

And if you are looking for closure of many of these story lines — you aren’t really going to find it.  That — or the closure will seem so pointless, and inane to tragic proportions, or they simply stop abruptly — as if jarring the reader out of the story and back into reality, in the most whiplash type of end.   And yet — this is the part of the story that Bohjalian got right.  The realization that for the majority of Europe, i.e. the Germans, the Jews, the displaced nationals of Poland, the Ukraine, France and myriad other countries, never found closure.  So many were left with no knowledge of what happened to family, friends and extended relations through the horror of the entire war that their lack of closure becomes that of the reader.  Bohjalian forcibly puts the reader into the traumatic experience of feeling loss and confusion about what is happening, how did we get here and how does one ever start to piece lives back together, when the entire face of the world has been so completely rewritten, so as to not even be able to recognize the remnants of what was?  Simply put — Bohjalian does have the ability to put the reader right in the middle of the end of the war — to horrifying effect and proportions.  That experience will haunt the reader to no end.  They will come away with an almost depressing feeling of fatality due to the complete pointlessness of war and the destructive wake it leaves behind.

This is not a read for the faint of heart.  Nor is it one for those that have weak stomachs or lean towards happy endings.  This is one you need to brace yourself going in — because it will leave scars behind, which will disturb and and stalk the reader for some time to come.

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Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss by: Laurence Rees

OK — Yes, I have a morbid fascination with World War II, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  But in my defense — I have always felt that understanding the underlying reasons why, will give us the ability to avoid similar dangers in the future.  So, where most people find the study of the darker periods of history disturbing, if not outright depressing — I would suggest that there is much more to learn from these eras than most of us are willing to admit.  And this book is certainly evidence of this argument.

In one of my management training courses at work, I remember the debate on if Hitler was a good leader.  My argument was that he was not so much a good leaders, as he was charismatic — but they are not one and the same.  So, when I came across this book, needless to say, I was interested to see what Rees offered on the subject.  What I found was that he was much more eloquent in making this argument than I could have been in that moment of trying to justify a position that most found contrary to their own opinion.

Reese explores many of the principles of leadership and how they applied to Hitler; the main thrust of his argument being that while Hitler exuded bottomless wells of charismatic abilities to captivate and hold audiences — the other significant aspects of leadership were seriously lacking in the person.  His question put to those who make the argument for Hitler’s great leadership skills being what defines a leader?  Here is a man who had a complete inability to form healthy relationships with others; refused to get his hands dirty when it came to implementing highly controversial, hate filled policies; refused to hear out any opinions which contradicted his own; manifested an over inflated megalomania, which led to the near annihilation of the German Wehrmacht; and rabidly adhered to a prejudicial intolerance through delusions of grandeur — all of which led to the surface appearance of excellence in leadership, without any substance.

Rees tackles one of the great arguments of history — what makes a great leader, in which he uses one of the great contradictory characters of the modern world.  But more than that — he begs the question of how does one with so little in the way of leadership skills become the poster child for being a highly successful — if distasteful example of leadership.  He further challenges our understanding of leadership, suggesting that charisma, in and of itself can masquerade as a great leader, while in reality producing devastating consequences to those who follow right into the very gates of hell.  But one thing I found interesting in this exploration was not so much Hitler’s ability to influence millions, so much as the fact that unique circumstances can combine to produce a desire to receive a savior — opening the door to one with the unique ability to convince people they have found just that.  This situation can — and frequently does result in the adoption of anyone who appears to have those abilities to save, causing them to overlook other warning signs of dangerous character traits.

Rees tracks Hitler’s changing leadership style — and how it altered the course of German history.  Many suggest that Hitler devolved into catastrophic instability as the War turned and started to collapse for the German war effort — particularly on the Eastern Front.  But Rees argues that this instability existed from the beginning — but it was the reality of failure — something Hitler was incapable of conceiving — that led to the emergence of this character defect.  As this defect surfaced and took on ever greater proportions, Hitler retired further and further from the public eye — so as not to expose the fact that he was not a savior, but rather a pathetic example of ineffective leadership gone horribly wrong.

The book is worth the read for its instructive power and counter argument to the difference between charisma and leadership.  There is little focus on the facts and reality of the Holocaust — other than as one manifestation of Hitler’s dangerous leadership style.  Rees focuses more on the tenets of leadership — and how Hitler did, and did not, in fact stack up against those accepted principles.  It is well written and insightful and certainly worth the time for those that work in leadership capacities.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

There are some books that you simply have to keep returning to because they stay with you.  Kind of like good friends or significant others — these books are personal, intimate and haunting in how much they impact on your life.  For me, this is one of those books.  Not only is it haunting in its story, with memorable characters and setting — but the writing is simply amazing.  Zusak has a real talent with words and demonstrates how influential and powerful words can really be.

This book encapsulates the entire tragedy that was the Nazi regime through the perception and understanding of Leisel — a young girl displaced more than once throughout the World War II nightmare. Zusak does an amazing job of portraying the entirety of the Nazi conflict through a powerful use of colors, images and themes of sky, ash, fire and snow.  For most of us these images are the ones that haunt us throughout the stories surrounding Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  Film, movies, documentaries and survivor’s accounts are all filled with images with these types of settings.  Zusak capitalizes on these images and uses them in both subtle and powerful ways throughout the entire story.  And yet — interestingly there are only passing references to the Holocaust and atrocities committed under the dictatorial regime.

The voice of the narrator is also an interesting point of view.  There are few books I have read that uses the voice of death as the narrator.  The point of view is an interesting approach through a third person account with the personal feel and at times marked ring of the first person perspective.  This approach gives the book both a disconnected feel as well as a very intimate feel to the story.  It simply draws the reader in and holds on till the very end.  It is hard to describe — but it is haunting in the extreme.  Simply put — Zusak demonstrates not only a mastery with words, but in their use to the utmost extent of their influence.  Books like this are the reason that readers love to read.

The characters are certainly the strongest point of this book right behind the imagery.  The aren’t just fully developed, but they live and breath throughout the book.  Zusak has presented characters that all have the mark of inevitability, without being morbid.  In fact, death tells you more than once what is coming, creating a sense of urgency and hopelessness.  (Which of course is the whole point — putting the reader into not only the time and place, but the feel of what it meant to live in Nazi Germany).  But it also gives the reader the feel and experience through many different points of view and lifestyles throughout the war experience.  These are the type of books and characters that stay with you and become real friends.

This is one of those books that you will find yourself coming back to time and again — and yet, sometimes you aren’t even sure that you want to.  It really gets in and stays with you, giving voice to a powerful set of characters in a setting filled with both danger, delinquency, political violence and even carefree childhood.  Definitely what I would classify as a must read!