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The Undertaking
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Jenn | 223 comments Mod
Post your thoughts about The Undertaking here!


Julie Place | 87 comments Just finished this book it's going to take awhile for me to be able to discuss this. It was well written easy to read and fast paced. It is very eye opening is all I can really say right now...


Julie Place | 87 comments Ok no that it's July I can post my thoughts...and it's probably not all of them so I can't wait to hear what everyone else thinks. Might be some spoilers so just an FYI

So in general I guess you can't hate the characters for supporting their country. They thought they were fighting for the right thing right?

Peter still did things that no decent human being would do like kicking people including old women and children out of their homes and stealing their food. Though from Peters point I guess he was doing a lot of that for his own survival. My biggest thing with him was how he was able to walk away from his wife after finding out she kept and wanted to keep a child that was conceived when she was raped by their enemies

Katherine was probably the most level headed character. She questioned her father and husband from the beginning almost about their views. And she got to the point where she realized what her country was doing or did maybe wasn't as right as most of Germany thought. I honestly don't know how she survived everything she endured.

Mr. Spinell the ultimate follower. With no back bone. He followed the doctor and believed everything he and the doctor were doing was ok. Than after the war and the British were in the country h was thankful and thought the British were doing the best thing for their country. And was he really ok with taking/stealing an apartment and the belongings of a Jewish family that were forcibly removed from their home? Where were his morals? And do onto others as you would have done onto you? I was very frustrated with him throughout the book!

Mrs. Spinell was just over a weak person to me. I get that losing a son is the most horrible thing a mother could suffer but she disappeared from the family after he died even though she had a husband, daughter and grandchild who needed her too.

I guess growing up and learning about WWII I never thought about the people that fought for the Germans and Hitlers movement. So learning that there was so much suffering and cruelty on both sides was shocking and very eye opening to me even though it probably shouldn't have been.


Jenn | 223 comments Mod
I haven't started the book, but I'm looking forward to it. My husband's grandmother, who was a young woman living in Nazi Germany, wrote a book (through her daughter) about her experiences. I remember, when I read it, being struck by the... the normalcy of the German people. How alike they are to us. My grandmother-in-law said that she wasn't aware, at the time, of the genocide happening in her country. She didn't know about it until the day after the Germans lost the war, when someone got on the radio stations and informed everyone of what the government had been doing. I'm sure her ignorance had a lot to do with her age---she was a very sheltered teenager. But, yeah, it's creepy to think about.


message 5: by Mel (last edited Jul 22, 2016 08:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mel | 47 comments Mod
Rating: 4.0
*3.5 but rounded up base on ending.
Reason:
Despite being fast paced, 'The Undertaking' was easy for me to put down. I suspect this comes down to my emotional investment as a reader and my level of curiosity for how the story will resolve. So although I finished it in record time, it would be misleading to attribute the speed to voracity.


Things I liked:
1- As stated, the end. (The resolution for Katharina and Peter to be more specific.) Here is were their character's differences shine, I think. Honest Pragmatic Katharina and Hopeful Idealist Peter. The choices they make through out the story culminate in the resolution. From where I'm sitting, this looks like a happy ending. (I get that I sit in a dark room with poor ventilation, but what do you expect? I'm a writer. This is where I feel most at home.)
2- Historical details. Lets face it, war is hell and not just for those getting shot at. This story illustrates that by a divide in order to conquer method: The City of Berlin Elite vs the Russian front drudges. Magee does a good job of presenting both worlds and making them feel realistic, not placating the reader with wish fulfillment in the fictional landscape.
3- Faustman and Johannes. They were soldier experiences that were different from the majority of the ones told in the story. I like what Magee is saying with them (or what I 'think' she's saying) by highlighting them. Johannes pulled at my heart strings and Faustman gave me pause for thought. What more could a humble reader ask for? I know not.
4- Unlikable characters. None of the characters were overwhelmingly likable, which is something I enjoyed. Particularly with the female characters for whom likability is mandatory, it seems. (Unless you're The Whore or The Shrew or some other unflattering one-dimensional mold in need of filling.) Some characters are monstrous to the point that the thought of liking them makes you sick to your stomach while others are more a queasy tummy twitch. Either way, this felt like a win for Magee.

Things I didn't like:
1- The voice. Yes it was consistent, but it was also distant. At it's best, I felt like a fly on the wall, however I didn't feel like I was there, in Peter's body, in Katharina body. The distance combined with the it-hurts-so-much-I'll-be-numb atmosphere, made it very difficult for me to emotionally connect with the characters. Without that connection, it's hard for me to get to a place where I worry about their well-being so much that I'm gripping the book and feverishly flipping pages. As it stood, I'd flip to see how long a chapter was, sometimes deciding to put it down and pick it up later when I felt like being depressed.
2- Disembodied voices. The trouble I have with a page full of dialog and little else in the way of description is that I get confused. Who's talking again? I get frustrated and move on after the third time because I don't want to take the time to figure it out if I feel like I'm getting the gist of it. The worst examples of this were the soldier bits. For over half the story the guys (Faber included) were interchangeable talking heads with blond hair and blue eyes. That created a disconnect that haunted our reader-character relationship for the rest of the story. By the time their distinctions became apparent, my cold robotic heart didn't much care.
3- Laughter. I like funny. I like funny a lot. This book needed more funny. Tragic-dark-morbid humor is some of the best, I think. (Although, if comedic writing isn't something that Magee does well, it's better that she didn't include it. Nothing worse than those that try to hard. *looks at mirror* Did I say you could talk?) Like anyone, I've experienced some dark times. You need the laughter to keep you going. Reading this was like listing to a musician choose only the sad notes. Eventually, you tune them out. If you don't, you realize you won't want to listen to anything at all ever again.

Conclusion:
Overall, I ... I don't know what to say. Enjoyed the book? No; any word with "joy" seems wrong. Learned from the book? Yes; the text was informative. Descriptors are vying for attention and I can't seem to find the right one except: experienced.

I experienced the book and I'm glad I did.

P.s. I liked the title. Very appropriate.


message 6: by Mel (last edited Jul 22, 2016 08:23PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mel | 47 comments Mod
To Julie,

I didn't think Mr. Spinell was a push over or spineless. I saw him as a survivalist. Sure, his loyalties could be bought, but he wanted himself and his family to survive and if that meant following the doctor of following the British/Americans/Russians he'd do it. In some ways, I liked him better than Peter.

Mrs. Spinell may have been weak, but I can see why she was and why her character needed to be. If she kept being strong, Katharina never would have strengthened, I think. We all have our breaking points. Johannes was hers.


Jenn | 223 comments Mod
Here's my review:

The Undertaking is Audrey Magee's debut novel (and currently her only novel), published in 2014. I hope she writes more, because damn this book is good.

The Undertaking is World War II fiction that follows the stories of German soldier Peter and his mail-order bride Katharina. As Peter and his unit terrorize, and are terrorized by, Russians on the Eastern front, Katharina and her parents move up in German society, enjoying the trappings of privileged life while their neighbors suffer. Germany falls apart as the book progresses. Katharina and her family fall out of the upper class's good graces and suffer the consequences of it. Peter is taken as a POW. Through it all, Katharina and Peter manage to reunite for a satisfyingly realistic conclusion.

Magee is such a fantastic writer. Spare with words, she packs as much meaning, characterization, and plot propulsion into as little space as possible. Much of this 300-page book is dialogue, and Magee does a lot with it. Each character has a unique voice; but, simultaneously, every character sounds like they're from 1940s Germany. It's really impressive, I think--how similar, but different, all of these characters sound.

Probably my favorite thing about The Undertaking is Magee's detached way of writing the most horrific scenes. There's often no warning. For instance, the German soldiers--whose perspective you're riding along with--will walk into a Russian village. The soldiers are starving, so they demand food. The villagers say, believably, that they have none, that other soldiers have come through and taken everything. Then one of the German soldiers--a character who you've been sympathizing with--shoots an old man and asks again. No food appears. He shoots another old man. No food appears. He shoots a young mother, her small child screaming beside her, and food appears. And that's how this book goes. The unit will be walking along, getting along, arguing, bantering, then--BAM something horrible happens, usually by their doing.

Another wonderful thing about this book is that Magee is careful, in the end, to make it clear that this isn't JUST the Nazi German army of WWII that behaved this way. This is every army. This is any army that's been brainwashed to hate a people, to dehumanize those people.

The Undertaking is an excellent, smart book. Thank you, Wendy from my book club, for recommending it. I never would have known about or read The Undertaking otherwise.


Jenn | 223 comments Mod
I didn't occur to me much while reading this whether the characters were likable. They seemed realistic, was all.

A couple of parts stood out to me, where I wanted to punch the characters.

1. When Mr. Spinell insists on Johannes staying at home during the bomb raid, but makes pregnant Katharina stay with him instead of staying himself.

and,

2. When Katharina tries to bully her way back into the meat line by driving her pram into the other women's ankles.

It's funny, but I saw red during those parts and not the parts when the army shot innocent Russian peasants. I think maybe I was in too much shock to feel anything in those moments.


Wendopolis | 77 comments I became angry when Peter blamed Katrina for being raped and also when Katrina and her family moved in to the Jewish family's house. They acted as if it should have been theirs in the first place and expressed no curiosity or anything about the former occupants.

The book is so well-written that despite the fact that the characters were all totally unlikeable, I guess I cared what happened to them, or I just wanted to see what happened.


message 10: by Jenn (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jenn | 223 comments Mod
Yeah, their moving into the Jewish family's house was pretty ugly. I can't remember the exact passage, but weren't they upset that the family had dared to take some of their possessions with them? Like, "That's just what those greedy Jews WOULD do."


Jess James | 22 comments This book was incredibly well-written and an easy read. However, it was a major bummer (of course, because it deals with heavy themes and families during wartime, this is to be expected, but there was no comic relief whatsoever.)

I really liked Kraft. He was a Big Picture guy from the beginning, and he knew when he'd been beat, in the end.

Katharina was an idealistic, aloof fool for most of her interactions in the novel. She had finally realized the way things were toward the end, and questioned her father, questioned motives, questioned everything. I liked her character development.

Peter... Peter. Dude was a bit of a prick from start to finish, that one. In a sick way I was a little glad that he went through as much shit as he did, after dicking over so many villagers.

The family moving into the new apartment was a shock. They just walked in and took over these peoples' stuff, like, "I *deserve* this. How could those Jews live like this while *I* lived in squalor?"

In a way, I hated the main characters due to their moral failings, but at the same time, hindsight is always 20/20. Books like this make me wonder what I would do in the same situation. Would I rally behind my country, trying to make Germany great again, at any cost? From the accounts I have heard of the people that lived in Germany at the time, things were still very normal for a long time for the common people.

All in all this book was a good, fast read. I tend toward happy, funny books, but this was a stark, well-written contrast in my normal reading schedule that was good for me. This book made me really think, and I love it when books do that. Thanks for the rec, Wendy!


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