Subtitled “German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields”, Lower accounts for the role of German women during the Third Reich, particularly those who travel...moreSubtitled “German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields”, Lower accounts for the role of German women during the Third Reich, particularly those who traveled to occupied areas in the East (i.e. Poland, Ukraine, Austria) and served as midwives, teachers/re-educators, secretaries and typists, and concentration camp guards. Portrayed during the war by the Nazis as wives and mothers — the producers and molders of future generation of Germans loyal to the Nazi regime — and after the war as victims, Lower attempts to dismantle this portrayal by introducing readers to 13 women employed by the Third Reich who she presents as representative of the 500,000 young women Lower says she can place directly in the killing fields.
Are the group of secretaries picnicking near Riga, Latvia who smelled the stench of fresh mass graves and chose a different spot guilty of mass murder? Or, is the agricultural overseer’s wife in the town of Buczacz, Ukraine who “noticed that the water tasted strange and realized that Jewish corpses had polluted the groundwater” (pg. 86) but didn’t intercede? Or, to quote Lower:
“In Holocaust studies, one type of perpetrator, fashioned after Adolf Eichmann and others who organized deportations of Jews from Berlin headquarters, is the male bureaucratic killer, or desk murder. He commits genocide through giving or passing along written orders; thus his pen or typewriter keys become his weapon. This type of modern genocidaire assumes that the paper, like its administrator, remains clean and bloodless. The desk murderer does is official duty. He convinces himself as he orders the deaths of tens of thousands that he has remained decent, civilized, and even innocent of the crime. What about the women who staffed those offices, the female assistants whose agile fingers pressed the keys on the typewriters, and whose clean hands distributed the orders to kill?” (pg. 98-99)
Certainly, I am pleased someone finally addressed the misrepresentation of German women during this time as victims rather than perpetrators. But this is the not the robust analyst I needed to be with Lower largely asserting that because women were in vicinity of where atrocities occurred, they must have participated. To quote Lower, again, in an interview with the New York Times:
“While writing the book, my editor and I made certain decisions about how to present the material to a general audience — for example, I ended up cutting about 100 pages of historiographical analysis, extended footnotes and examples from the original manuscript, and inserted a list of main characters to help readers remember the basic profiles of the 13 featured women.”
Why cut your analysis or the footnotes supporting your theory? At many points in this book, it felt as though Lower had decided her assertion was correct and didn’t need to bother with finding the evidence to support such claims. Given her statement above, it could be possible the necessary footnotes, analysis, and examples were removed, but she and her editor did her book a great disservice in chasing a more general audience. It’s not up to par with other research books; it’s too confusing to be presented to a general audience.
Repeating information at every turn, Lower slips in anecdotal evidence to support her theories but never gives us a clear picture of who the 13 women she outlined at the beginning of the book were. The book is riddled with awkward transitions — again, possibly because whole paragraphs were deleted — and I found myself rereading passages in order to understand exactly what Lower was trying to say. What could have been a groundbreaking and powerful study turned out to be poorly executed forcing me to muddle through until the end in order to reach the footnotes that I had wrongly assumed would support Lower’s assertions.(less)
Born into wealth and privileged in present-day Ukraine, Nonna Bannister is persecuted by the Soviets for being wealthy and, later, by the Nazis for be...moreBorn into wealth and privileged in present-day Ukraine, Nonna Bannister is persecuted by the Soviets for being wealthy and, later, by the Nazis for being Russian. Nonna keeps a diary throughout her childhood carrying the tiny scraps of paper through the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and then to her new life in the United States in a small pouch.
This book, however, is not a reprint of her diary but rather a memoir rewritten on yellow, legal pads decades after the war and long after Nonna had established a new life in the US. The scraps of paper were lost — possibly still in that small pouch buried with Nonna at her husband’s bequest — before the book’s publication so there is no way of comparing what Nonna wrote at the time with the edited version published in this novel. As such, the book skips from past tense to present tense with a smattering of poems about her experience and notes from George and Tomlin in between creating a disjointed, confusing narrative, and the interjection of words adopted from American English highlight how edited the memoirs are. It would have been a perfect addition to a class I once took given our lengthy discussions about memories and how they change over time.
It also would have been an interesting addition given how Bannister places more emphasis on the horrific treatment her family experienced at the hands of the Soviets rather than the Nazis. In fact, except for one very poignant chapter about her mother’s attempt to rescue a Jewish baby during transport to the concentration camp where Nonna and her mother were used as slave labor, there is actually very little information about Nonna’s experience during the Holocaust. She spends much of her time discussing her happy childhood and the transition of Russia into the Soviet Union, which certainly should not be dismissed as unimportant but does make the title rather misleading.
There are so many questions left unanswered at the end of this book, mainly what happened to Nonna’s brother. Nonna insists he died during the war and it is possible that no records exist, but it is never made clear if she looked for him to the same extent she looked for her mother, whom she was separated from during their time in the concentration camps. There are also some questionable aspects of Nonna’s recollections — namely that was able to wander away from the SS guards and dogs, intermix with Jewish prisoners, and avoid execution by falling into a pit of murdered Jews — that could have possibly been confirmed by her original writings or, at the very least, by an editor knowledgeable in the Holocaust. (George is an author of Christian novels and Tomlin is a teacher who specializes in helping authors get published.)
What is added to the text by the editors is often repetitive of what Nonna has already said or will say. There are no footnotes or citations demonstrating outside research beyond the occasional Wikipedia citation, which I find abhorrent in any nonfiction novel. Bannister’s recollections could have greatly enriched a dissertation or book about the experience of non-Jewish, Russian forced laborers during the Holocaust but, unfortunately, are not enough to constitute a book on their own.(less)
No longer do I eagerly await Picoult’s newest release; no longer do add myself to the wait list at the library as soon as the listing is poster. Her l...moreNo longer do I eagerly await Picoult’s newest release; no longer do add myself to the wait list at the library as soon as the listing is poster. Her last two novels were mediocre at best, and I’ve cracked the formula for her novels so that the endings no longer surprise me. However, a friend asked me to read this novel since I’ve taken a handful of courses on the Holocaust and read a fair share of books — nonfiction and fiction — on the topic such that the topic has its own category tag on my book blog.
One of my favorite professors for Holocaust and genocide studies (actually, she’s one of my favorite professors of all time) gave a mini-lecture on how the Holocaust is often used as a crutch for novelist. Don’t know what to write about? Write about the Holocaust! Or, so her argument went. I never followed her line of thinking until I read this novel because the use of the Holocaust was so stilted and so unnecessary that I found myself groaning in frustration time and time again.
Picoult’s formula is to find a complex moral question, place it inside the context of a heart-wrenching setting, and then twist the ending so you are left with more questions than answers. In this book, she asks two questions — (1) can forgiveness be given for crimes against humanity? and (2) do you have the right to forgive someone for something committed not directly against you?. These are questions often entangled with the Holocaust; Eva Mozes Kor received an intense amount of backlash for her decision to forgive Josef Mengele’s for his cruel experiments on her at Auschwitz because some argue she does not have the right to grant forgiveness for those who are not alive to make that decision for themselves. Kor is a Holocaust survivor; Picoult’s main character, Sage, is not.
However, those familiar with Picoult’s work will recognize similarities between this novel and her 2008 novel Change of Heart. In that story, the main character must grapple with the request for forgiveness from the man convicted of sexually abusing and killing her daughter as well as her husband and decide whether or not to support his desire to die and donate his heart to her surviving daughter. In this story, the main character must grapple with the request for forgiveness from the man who physically abused and killed people as a guard at Auschwitz like her grandmother and decide whether or not to support his desire to die having been forgiven by a Jew. The setting is different and one is more localized in its focus than the other but the questions are virtually the same, which leads me to follow my professor’s belief that some authors use the Holocaust as a crutch for their novels.
Furthermore, the way Picoult writes about the Holocaust as the grandmother tells her story reads like a poorly written retelling of someone else’s memories she gleamed from the History Channel. I don’t doubt that Picoult did her research, but there in lies the problem — she is trying to impress her readers with her research so it becomes more of a history lesson than the emotional account of an individual. (The same problem occurs earlier in the book when she’s detailing the experiences of being a baker.) It’s too detached, too “and then this happened” that connecting to the character is difficult, and her attempts to emotionally manipulate her readers with this section of the novel are quite obvious.
The character development of Sage — ugh, I understand the woman was scared and therefore does not want to associate with people, but the backstory of why she is this is never fully fleshed out. It’s hard to believe that she could be so scared and meek throughout 90 percent of the novel only to become this sexy, fiery Nazi hunter and lover when Leo, the attorney for the Department of Justice, shows up to help her investigate the man claiming to be a Nazi SS officer who wants her to forgive him. The characters who deserved to have chapters from their point of view? Minka (Sage’s grandmother) and Josef, the Nazi. Leo should never have been included on that list. I was also incredibly tempted to skip the story within a story of the vampire because it seemed unnecessary. Personally, although it does become a bigger part of the story in the end, I still didn’t think reading the story for myself was necessary. It more of a distraction than anything else.
Bottom line: Other than the two books of Picoult I own, love(d?), and have yet to review, I doubt you’ll find any more Picoult reviews from me. This book was just too poorly written, too formulaic, and too busy capitalizing on the Holocaust to incline me to search out her next novel.(less)
There’s something almost magical about this book. With Hitler’s army barring down on them, the residents of a remote Jewish village in Romania decide...moreThere’s something almost magical about this book. With Hitler’s army barring down on them, the residents of a remote Jewish village in Romania decide to reset the world and start over from the beginning. Relationships are reset; our narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is reassign to another family to be their daughter, to be their baby. Genesis begins anew. For a while the dream manages to sustain them. The young girl grows up and becomes a wife and mother. Yet like all good dreams, the residents are forced to wake up and face the new world, and the younger mother must flee to save herself, her children, and her husband.
The same magic surrounding this book is what keeps the reader so distant. This new world is built for the eleven-year-old girl, for her aunt and uncle, for her parents and neighbors. It is not for the reader and while I always felt that sense of magic surrounding me, I never could catch hold of these characters.
This is especially true after Lena and the others go one the run. I lost track of them, lost my footing along the way. The psychological damage inflicted on Lena, our narrator, even before the war warps her perception of reality. An eleven-year-old forced to be a baby? A twelve-year-old who marries and becomes a mother? She’s wrapped up in her own naivety because she’s still a child.
Yet all the characters have a warped perception, all of them are naive, and it’s hard to keep track of people who are referred to by their occupation rather than names or personalities. The book is foggy. The end is bittersweet.(less)
Eggers’ novel is actually the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys of Sudan program. Due to his young age...moreEggers’ novel is actually the biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys of Sudan program. Due to his young age at some of the story’s more pivotal moments, Deng and Eggers had to pronounce his story a novel. However, as Deng explains in his preface to the book, the book is historically accurate and the events detailed are as he remembers them to be. I wasn’t expecting this novel to be a biography when I picked up the book; I actually thought this “preface” was a part of the narrative until I reached the end of the book and learned more about the Valentine Achak Deng Foundation.
The novel begins with Deng being robbed and assaulted in his own home in the United States. The events and the presence of one of his attackers in his home over a period of time causes Deng to recount the carnage of his life in Sundan, a country where between May 16, 1983 and January 9, 2005 over two and a half million people died of war and war-related causes, over four million were internally displaced in southern Sudan, and two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries (pg. xiv). The region at the center of this book became an independent state on July 9, 2011 known as the Republic of South Sudan, and the rebel political movement that dominated so much of his life, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) became the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, a political party in South Sudan.
The book continues with Valentino narrating his journey to Ethiopia and Kenya, where he was attacked by armies and wild animals and stricken by hunger, and his life after he is settled in United States through flashbacks. There were moments when I wasn’t sure how much longer I would continue with this chunkster of a book, but I would turn the page and be thrown back – mouth agape – at Deng recounts his life.
Next week, my class on trafficking will be discussing the militarization of refugee camps. I was particularly intrigued by Deng’s time in a refugee camp administered by the United Nations. The divergence of materials to support the SPLA, the script the boys were taught to say and all the insights into the workings of the camp were masterfully explained and I’m excited to discuss this issue in my class next Friday. The politics of the Lost Boys “escape” to America, viewed largely as a “failed experiment” is also a fascinating topic that I hope we will be able to discuss.
At over 500 pages, this book took me awhile to read and there were many moments were I was bogged down by so much information. It’s easy to get lost, and I’m still not completely sure I have the timeline down correctly. Still, there are moments of absolute fascination and I do feel like Eggers and Deng managed to communicate more deeply about the realities of life in Sudan.(less)