Told in a duel narrative structure, Blum’s novel largely focuses on the life of Trudy Schlemmer’s mother, Anna, during World War II in Germany with ocTold in a duel narrative structure, Blum’s novel largely focuses on the life of Trudy Schlemmer’s mother, Anna, during World War II in Germany with occasionally glimpses into the lives of Trudy and Anna in the United States during the 1990s. A professor of German history at the University of Minnesota, Trudy has launched an audio-visual interview project where she asks non-Jewish Germans about their experiences in Nazi Germany; a project that presumably draws on Blum’s work with the Shoah Foundation, an organization that conducts audio-visual interviews with survivors of the Holocaust.
Anna refuses to discuss her experiences with her daughter insisting that their lives before she and three-year-old Trudy went to live with an American solider in Minnesota are to be forgotten, to be left in the past. Trudy’s only source of information is an old photograph she finds hidden among her aging mother’s possessions: a portrait of Anna, toddler Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmführer of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Trudy is convinced she is the child of a Nazi officer complicating her already tenuous friendship with Reiner, a survivor of the Holocaust, incensed over her determination to apply logic to the explainable, to give voices to those who robbed others of their lives.
Books focusing on the perspective and roles of German women during World War II are rather few and far between possibly because, as Reiner says, these women were complicit in the crimes of the regime and giving them voices opens the door for revisionist history, for absolution and pity of the participants in the Nazi regime. (We could debate this assertion all day, but I would say it is the typical response to questions of whether or not the experience of non-Jewish German women is a worthy field of study.) Anna is immediately cast in a sympathetic light — she hides the Jewish father of a baby, her father is a brute who moves in lockstep with the regime, she risks her life to deliver bread to political prisoners at Buchenwald, she is brutalized and raped by the Obersturmführer — and the German men and women Trudy interviews are unapologetically racist. So, really, the novel skirts the issues it raises by making Anna a truly exceptional case.
Anna is also a difficult character to understand. The loss of Max, her daughter’s father, clearly had a tremendous impact on her as did her treatment at the hands of the Obersturmführer, but to internalize that pain and still allow her daughter to believe her father is a Nazi is unimaginable and unforgivable. She goes to great lengths to protect Trudy (known as Trudie in Germany), to make sure the little girl has enough to eat and a future after the war, but she is so utterly cold towards her daughter that it seems like she blames Trudy for what occurred during the war.
Occasionally, the writing is clunky and dissolves into repetitive ruminations on the sexual acts between the Obersturmführer and Anna. It also took me some time to adjust to the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue of the characters as it is not always clear who is speaking. But, overall, I thought the novel raised some interesting questions about the role of German women in the Holocaust, their culpability, and their guilt. Such questions should, at least, encourage discussion at book club....more
Martel’s novel is about the Holocaust. I state such a fact so starkly because I am still trying to wrap my head around his use of this topic. I admit,Martel’s novel is about the Holocaust. I state such a fact so starkly because I am still trying to wrap my head around his use of this topic. I admit, I picked this book up solely because of my deep and abiding affection for Life of Pi – both the novel and the film – and then avoided it for four years after hearing whispers of heavy criticism following its publication. I finally picked it up in part because of the shortness of the audiobook; I needed a sense of accomplishment before starting another twenty-four hour plus audiobook.
The novel seems to be semi-autobiographical; the main character, L’Hote, is coming off a wildly successful first novel and struggling to meet the expectations of his readers and his publisher with his eagerly anticipated second novel. Martel undoubtable experienced a similar situation following the success of Life of Pi; I know I was not the only one eagerly anticipating his next novel.
Henry tries to write about the Holocaust creating a “flip book” with an essay discussing the Holocaust’s representation in fiction on one side and a fictional account of the Holocaust filled with the very metaphors rarely found in Holocaust fiction on the other, but his publisher rejects the concept saying it is too complicated to read and to sell. Discouraged, Henry moves his wife to another town, takes a job in a chocolate café, learns the clarinet, and begins acting in a local theatre troupe. Fan mail praising his first novel and clamoring for a second still arrives at his door, but Henry is singularly intrigued by one letter in which an elderly taxidermist asks for assistance in editing a play he has written entitled “Beatrice and Virgil”. The play follows the lives of a donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil, respectively, during “The Horrors”, and Henry seeks out the taxidermist to learn exactly what he is trying to say in his use of allegorical use of animals.
“There’s nothing like the unimaginable to make people believe.”
Henry’s interest in the taxidermist’s tale is due largely to his advocating for a fictional approach to the Holocaust. He bemoans how few novels there are about the Holocaust, particularly ones written by non-Jews, and how those in existence are too grounded in history. (I’ve briefly written on this topic and the opinion of one of my former professors, a renowned Holocaust historian, about the mixing of fiction with the Holocaust.) He wants there to be Holocaust science fiction and Holocaust fantasy novels – a mutually cringe-worthy and intriguing idea – and eventually learns in the course of the novel through his interaction with the taxidermist’s play how such stories might take a reader, or a writer, to unintended places.
Beatrice and Virgil, the donkey and the howler monkey, are supposed to stand in for the experience of Jews during the Holocaust and while the use of animals in the portrayal of the Holocaust is not new, these particular animals are written in such a sinister and twisted way that we are to believe Beatrice and Virgil are animals in the way the Nazis unjustly and abhorrently equated European Jews, communists, and other victims of their regime. That is, Beatrice and Virgil sit beside a dead body with a rather blasé attitude and do nothing to assist women, who are humans in the tale, forced to drown themselves and their babies. (It is unclear if such suicidal actions were taken under the regime of the Nazis or the Soviet Red Army.) Thus, we reach the unintended places of utilizing animals in an allegorical manner and encouraging non-Jews – a certain subsect of non-Jews, that is – to write about the Holocaust, and the road to such places certainly raised more questions for me as a reader than I anticipated.
That said, I can certainly understand the criticisms surrounding this book and the reasons why so many people say there were revolted and offended by this book. It is one I recommend with the greatest caveat that I enjoyed it because of my personal interest in the construction and presentation of the Holocaust in fiction....more
A eugenics researcher from America and his daughter, Rachel Kramer, are well-received in Germany during the summer of 1939, but Rachel’s attention isA eugenics researcher from America and his daughter, Rachel Kramer, are well-received in Germany during the summer of 1939, but Rachel’s attention is on subverting the advances of SS Office Gerhardt Schlick, whom she rejected a marriage proposal from five years ago and who is now married to her former best friend, Kristine. But Gerhardt sees his daughter, deaf since birth, as a blight on his Aryan bloodline and is determined to not only rid himself of both Amelie and Kristine but to marry Rachel. Rachel promises Kristine she will help to save Amelie’s life and turns to the American journalist Jason Young to help connect her with the resistance and the only people who can help save Amelie and, later, her life.
Although most people associate the Nazi eugenics program with the mass murder of Jews, the program also targeted people with mental and physical disabilities. Their stories are rarely told in both fictional and nonfictional accounts, and a monument to their suffering only recently opened in Berlin. In that regard, I applaud Gohlke for focusing her attention of the other victims of the Nazi eugenics program and for not shying away from making the connection between the study of eugenics in Germany and in the United States, where the forced sterilization of women and men with physical and mental disabilities was also championed.
Unfortunately, Amelie quickly fades into the background merely existing in many scenes as someone to be cuddled or patted with a more unbelievable story taking the spotlight from what could have been a very interesting story about the plight of trying to hide a deaf child in Nazi Germany. Instead, the story focuses on how Rachel was separated from her twin sister, Lea, at birth with Lea undergoing forced sterilization and being raised by her biological grandmother while Rachel is given to an American couple to be raised with the express purpose of being married to Gerhardt Schlick.
This bizarre experiment, although it is never explained exactly what was the purpose of this separation, was supposedly done under the guidance of Josef Mengele, who performed horrific experiments on twins in the concentration camps, long before the rise of the Nazis Party or their seizure of power. Given the ages of Rachel and Lea, however, Mengele would have had to concoct this plan around 1914-1919 when he was between the age of three and eight. The story also does not mathematically add up when you consider that Lea was forcibly sterilized by a Nazi research unit as before her marriage to Friederich, which supposedly occurred before the Nazi rise to power. There are so many aspects of this book where the history has been thoroughly researched and yet the main focus of the book wasn’t. It is just too bizarre.
I figured based on who the publisher is that the book would have a Christian element to it, but such as element was not introduced until the final moments of the book that it felt incredibly out of place. I also object to authors who convert their Jewish characters to Christianity during the Holocaust as I find it incredibly distasteful and such a conversion in this book ended up contradicting what Gohlke then wrote in the epilogue. By the time I reached the epilogue, though, I had already anticipated being letdown by a novel that held such great promise, and I came to the conclusion that it might be time for me to stop reading fictional accounts of the Holocaust....more
In the middle of the opening night at the opera in Chicago, an eighty-three-year-old Polish immigrant named Ben Solomon walks up to Elliot Rosenzweig,In the middle of the opening night at the opera in Chicago, an eighty-three-year-old Polish immigrant named Ben Solomon walks up to Elliot Rosenzweig, the wealthy and beloved philanthropist, and shoves a gun in his face denouncing him as a former SS officer named Otto Piatek. Ben is promptly arrested for assault and while Rosenzweig denies being Otto Piatek, he does use his enormous influence to get Ben released from jail. Convinced Rosenzweig only did so because he wanted to story to be dropped; Ben hires Catherine Lockhart and starts the process of suing Rosenzweig in order to force him to answer for his alleged war crimes. Catherine is not entirely convinced that Ben has fingered the right person and insists the man provide her with evidence to the contrary, which opens the door for Ben to tell his entire story beginning and ending with how he and Piatek grew up as brothers in the same household until Piatek aligned himself with the Nazis.
Books about hunting elderly Nazis hiding in the United States seem to be increasing in popularity as of late; I believe this is the third or fourth fictional novel I’ve read on the topic. In that regard, Balson’s novel stands apart as it is one of the few where the realities of convincing people to believe that a man is actually a Nazi is so succinctly written. Ben is perceived by nearly everyone in Chicago, including his own lawyer, as a confused old man who cannot separate the past from the present. His instance on talking to his dead wife and telling the whole story rather than just the relevant parts does not help matters, and he has no family to vouch for his lucidity making it easy for Rosenzweig and his team of lawyers to dismiss his claims outright. The mystery as to whether or not Rosenzweig is actually Piatek is certainly engaging in large part because of Ben and the way he tells his story, and for that I think the novel deserves praise.
Where it begins to fall apart, however, is Ben’s story itself not to mention the unnecessary subplot of whether or not Catherine will find happiness with the man who introduced her to Ben. Is it believable that a non-Jewish father would leave his child to be raised by a Jewish family? Certainly, yes, but maybe not when taken into the context of the location of said family – Zamosc, Poland. What is completely unbelievable is Balson’s claim that Auschwitz operated without the knowledge of the local townspeople, that Ben would be able to escape so frequently from the Nazis and escape yet again with the aid of a woman who also aligned herself with Piatek, or that Catherine would make it through the American school system, undergraduate university, and law school and yet still not know what a ghetto is. Ridiculous and, while clearly written to give Ben the opportunity to tell his story, Catherine’s lack of knowledge made her appear as the worst possible choice for Ben’s lawyer.
What would have made this novel truly interesting would be to drop the present narrative and construct the dueling narrative of Ben and Piatek, which would have answered lingering questions as to how Piatek could so easily align himself with the Nazis and turn his back on his adoptive family. But doing so would require a psychological study of human nature and a level of sophistication not evident in this text....more
Subtitled “German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields”, Lower accounts for the role of German women during the Third Reich, particularly those who travelSubtitled “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....more
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 beBorn 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....more
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 lNo 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....more
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 decideThere’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....more
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 ageEggers’ 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....more