Book Preview – My Last Lament by James William Brown

Growing up, I read a lot of novels that centered on the Holocaust and World War II. Many of those novels were part of the public school curriculum and they frequently told tales of the persecuted and the brave people who tried to shelter them. While I still find myself drawn to historic novels set in that time period, in recent years I’ve found many more books that go beyond just the years of the war itself, just the Jews hiding in Germany and Austria and Poland, extending their stories into the years after the war officially ended and the world began piecing itself back together. Seeing examples of the lasting damage and turmoil across Europe after the Nazis had been defeated carries more weight for me now than it would have when I was in elementary and middle school. James William Brown’s upcoming My Last Lament is one such novel.

An old woman now, Aliki lives in the same village in Greece where she grew up but she is among the last of her generation and is the area’s last lamenter. An American student wanted to study and document her laments leaving a tape recorder behind so Aliki can record them when it’s convenient for her. In the process of trying to fulfill the student’s wishes, Aliki records the story of her own life beginning with her teenage days when her small village was occupied by German soldiers and two boys came into her life whom she would constantly find herself torn between. Takis is the young son of the woman who takes Aliki in after her father’s death and becomes a brother of sorts to her, though there is something strange and sometimes dangerous about him. Stelios is a little older than Aliki, a Greek Jew in hiding whom Aliki grows to love. But the lives of all three are threatened and tossed about as Greece reels in political unrest following the defeat and retreat of the Germans. Continue reading

Book Preview – The Upright Heart by Julia Ain-Krupa

upright heart - book coverIn the case of Julia Ain-Krupa’s upcoming The Upright Heart, I find myself once again in the situation where what I was expecting based on the description provided and what I actually got were two very different things. Yet, when I went back to the description it actually is very close to the story being told in the novel—it just didn’t prepare me at all for the way that story was going to be presented. Luckily, in this case the surprising difference between expectation and reality worked in the novel’s favor, and I can’t honestly think of a much better way that the book’s description could prepare the reader for the way the narrative unfolds.

In the years following World War II, the people of Poland—both living and dead—struggle to make peace with all that transpired. Wolf married and moved to America before the war while the rest of his family were killed in the war; he returns to his hometown to see what is left and to say the prayers for the dead in the hope he and they may rest easier. On another plane, his first love Olga—a Catholic who helped hide his family as long as she could—clings to him when he reappears; she is unable to move on but isn’t sure why. A young woman, Anna, sees and feels the spirits of the dead around her, uncertain whether the people she sees are among the living or the dead; she is also haunted by memories of her former coworker, a woman who concealed her Jewish identity when they both worked as maids in the household of the governor general’s subordinate. Wiktor and his family survived the war but an on-the-job accident shortly after its end leaves Wiktor’s family mourning his loss while his spirit seeks to assist the spirits of others who have been having trouble moving on. Continue reading

Book Preview – Tasa’s Song by Linda Kass

tasa's song - book coverAfter reading The Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert, I came across the description for Linda Kass’ upcoming novel, Tasa’s Song and found it intriguing enough to request to preview the book. Like The Girl from the Train, Tasa’s Song takes place in eastern Poland during World War II and involves the impact of the Soviets and communism on the Polish people as the war progresses. Where The Girl from the Train looked at adopted families, Tasa’s Song looks more at the close ties that can develop between members of an extended family; where The Girl from the Train looked at words and language and their connection to one’s spirit and identity, Tasa’s Song looks at those same things through music.

Tasa—short for Anastasia—is from a wealthy and prominent Polish Jewish family in a rural area of Poland. She and her cousin, Danik—with whom she grew up and continues to develop a specifically close relationship to—board in a larger city to attend a private school. Tasa began learning violin from her grandfather and the instrument and music become a key part of how she interacts with the world around her. Moments—particularly of high emotion—become associated with certain pieces of music or movements within larger pieces. Playing those pieces proves to be an integral part of coping with the increasing uncertainties and terrors surrounding her as she, her family, and her friends become stranded between the advancing Nazi forces and the Soviets who took over eastern Poland at the outset of the war.

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Book Preview – At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

9780385523233_p0_v1_s260x420It’s been several years now since I first read Water for Elephants and while I haven’t had a chance to read Ape House yet (it’s still on my library wish list and I will probably get to it later this year), I jumped at the chance to preview Sara Gruen’s latest novel, At the Water’s Edge.

As World War II rages in Europe, Maddie Hyde, her husband, Ellis, and their best friend, Hank Boyd, are safely enjoying their wealth back in the US, both men having been rejected from serving for medical reasons. Except it isn’t their wealth (or not entirely). Ellis and Maddie live off an allowance from his parents and when their behavior threatens to get them cut off entirely, they embark on a dangerous and foolish plan to cross the ocean, find the Loch Ness monster, and redeem the family name. The journey brings them face-to-face with the realities of the war they’ve been protected from and, for Maddie, proves to be an eye opening and life changing experience. Continue reading

Book Preview – The Sweetness by Sande Boritz Berger

9781631529078_p0_v3_s260x420In her upcoming novel, The Sweetness, Sande Boritz Berger looks at the impact of World War II and the Holocaust on a Jewish family living in New York. It is a novel of coming to terms with tragedy and the scars of war but more so it is a novel dealing with the challenges faced by the second generation. How did that war impact those whose parents managed to escape before trouble came, who were born in America but are raised by those who remember a very different way of life? How does the memory of family survive when war sets out to break them and where should the line be drawn when it comes to parental interference in their children’s lives? How can we tell whether we’ll regret letting go of something while there’s still time to do something about it?

Much of the novel centers on Mira Kane and her extended family. Living with her parents, brother, and her father’s two sisters and brother, Mira has dreams of becoming a fashion designer and escaping from the family business: a factory where they produce knitwear for the likes of Macy’s, Sears, and JC Penny. But the developing war in Europe and the threat posed to her father’s mother, younger brother, and family back in their homeland put additional pressure on Mira to put those dreams on hold indefinitely. With brief glimpses at the branch of their family now stuck under Nazi control, told through the eyes of Mira’s young cousin, Rosha, the distant threats and fears are contrasted with the harsher realities of living and surviving under the regime itself. Continue reading

Book Review – In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

9780307408853_p0_v1_s260x420In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson interwove the progression of a serial killer with the planning and construction of the Chicago World’s Fair. With In the Garden of Beasts, he tackles the subject of Hitler and his rise. More specifically, he examines why no one stepped in to stop Hitler and his regime before they had built up their military strength. Presented through the dual perspectives of then newly appointed US Ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd, and his forward daughter, Martha, Larson examines the gradual and often reluctant disillusionment with the Nazi regime and its leaders.

In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed William Dodd, a professor from Chicago, to the position of Ambassador to Berlin, but it turns out that was only after several others had turned the position down. Dodd was from a very different economic background and upbringing than many foreign officials of the day. This led to a number of personal disagreements with the State Department and other workers in the Berlin offices during Dodd’s tenure in Germany. Though Dodd was ambassador for several years, Larson focuses almost exclusively on the first full year the family spent there, July 1933 through 1934.

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Book Review – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is more than just another novel about World War II and the Holocaust, depicting the plight of those in concentration camps or in hiding and those who helped people singled out for extinction. It does tell a piece of their stories. It tells the story of a German family hiding a Jew as the war picks up pace. While Hitler and the Nazis were at work, while many Germans found themselves falling in line, this novel reminds us that there are many forms of suffering and although the allied forces (whatever their reasons for joining the war) ultimately stopped the extermination of an entire people, they caused destruction too. Because that is what happens during a war. There exist noble causes worth fighting for, but war always leads to a lot of destruction before rebuilding and healing start.

Following the story of a young person through World War II is hardly original. It makes sense. They weren’t around for the World War I and wouldn’t have a very comprehensive understanding of how the reparations from that war could lead to a society in which a party like the Nazis was not only possible, but also thrived. They accept the teachings of their struggling parents but are also impressionable and can question things in ways that adults tend to push aside. Continue reading

Book Review – On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood by Irmgard A. Hunt

Childhood is one of the most tragic casualties of war. Any story of a childhood spent in a war-torn country is going to tug on the heartstrings regardless of which side of which war it was, right? Irmgard A. Hunt puts that assumption to the test in her memoir On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood recounting growing up not just in Hitler’s Germany, but miles away from his headquarters. Knowing what she and we do now about just what Hitler and his Nazi regime were up to, Hunt looks back on her life living in the Third Reich.

The question of how the people of Germany could have let Hitler and the Nazi regime commit the atrocities they did has been asked and studied from many perspectives including the psychological and historical. It has been presented in technical terms that make it sound so easy to prevent from happening again. Rarely is it laid bare in the honest way that Hunt does in On Hitler’s Mountain.

Beginning with the story of her maternal grandparents who met and married as World War I unfolded, Hunt presents the struggling Germany of the 1920’s as reparation payments sent inflation soaring and national morale plummeting. That was the Germany of her mother’s childhood, of her father’s childhood. Hunt paints a portrait of a people financially and emotionally drained whose low self-esteem was preyed upon by a skillful manipulator.

An interesting perspective, Hunt manages to keep herself a step removed, though it isn’t intentional. Unfortunately, having been born the year after Hitler’s elected rise to power, there is much of the history that Hunt was almost too young to appreciate and it’s hard to get past how much hindsight and reflection color the narrative. It felt less like the story of young Irmgard and more the tale of her mother, struggling to provide for her children and make sense of the disparity between what the government had promised her life would be and the everyday life she led.

It’s amazing how much convenience and general indifference of the majority empowered the fanatics until disagreement, let alone resistance, became traitorous. The conflict between the generations and the impact that conversation has on a child are one of the many dynamics presented by Hunt for the reader to consider and explore.

It was actually a bit of a relief to read Hunt’s memoir. She could easily have tried to shift responsibility elsewhere but instead shows just how much guilt was felt by the German people (albeit, briefly at the end but it is there). There will always be those who feel that nothing can be done to explain, that there will never be enough, and who will think that this book is glorifying something terrible. But On Hitler’s Mountain is about a real person who really lived through that atmosphere and she feels that the world has finally reached a place where she can tell her story without feeling shamed into silence.

Overall, Hunt’s memoir is remarkably relatable and it is a first step towards acknowledging a perspective of history that has, if not been glossed over, has at least been approached in such a technical manner that it has become detached in many ways from the historical narrative at large.