The Tattooist of Auschwitz

img_3982Book: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Date Read: April 8 to 16, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I have seen this book all over Bookstagram for the last few months, so when I saw it in a small bookshop I decided that I needed to give it a try. I feel like this is a little outside my normal reading realm, as I am not usually a historical fiction reader. (I know this is based on a true story, but as it is not purported to be a fully accurate factual account of events, I think it should still be considered a work of fiction.) I wish I could give a good reason for my tendency to steer away from historical fiction, but I cannot quite put my finger on it. I suppose this genre just does not seem to jump out to me in the same way that others do.

That all said, I quickly found myself totally engrossed in this story. The cover declares it to be a story of “love and survival,” although I feel like those two descriptors should be reversed. No doubt this is a love story that will satisfy any romantics out there, but I personally found the survival aspects of the more intriguing. Both Lale and Gita must fight for their survival, constantly walking the line of making life bearable and endangering themselves and others.

An interesting aspect of the story is the fear associated with their positions—Lale as the Tätowierer and Gita simply as a person put to work. Despite their treatment as prisoners, they are at risk for being labeled as conspirators against their own people. Lale is reluctant to become the Tätowierer, but rationalizes this with his own survival, and the thought that he can at least try to treat new prisoners humanely as he does his work. It is an interesting perspective on difficult choices: is it realistic to think that they would refuse to work when the other option is death? Although not quite overtly stated, the guilt associated with his assigned work is the driving force in his dangerous efforts to help others in the camp.

I suppose I would be remiss to completely disregard the love story aspect of the novel, since I imagine that is what held the appeal for many readers. Of course, I cannot blame them—it is beautiful as a love story as well. While I always give an internal eye roll at the “love at first sight” trope, this definitely goes beyond that in its depth. Lale and Gita find themselves in a harrowing time and situation, forcing their relationship to develop in a nontraditional manner. There are countless obstacles at hand to separate them, and so much uncertainty in their lives that this bit of happiness seemed a saving grace for them both. The relationship was certainly against the odds—both in surviving the camps, and then locating each other afterwards when they were forced to flee independently.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Hmmm. This is different. I like it! 3 paws.”

Hillsdale: Greek Tragedy in America’s Heartland

img_2352Date Read: October 2 to 19, 2019

Rating: 2 (of 5) stars

This was my choice for a somewhat loose interpretation for the October prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: a book that scares you. I do not have a ton of true horror options on my shelves, and even then I would not quite say that horror themed books really scare me. This one was the scariest I could think of, the true bottom of my to read list pile. It’s outside my normal realm, and I bought it on a whim because it was on a display of local interest books at one of my favorite bookstores. This was about 10 years ago; since then I discovered that it has the lowest average Goodreads rating of all my books. Now that’s terrifying.

I tried really hard to go into this with an open mind, but it did not take me long to figure out why the book had been poorly received. The story itself is intriguing: the president of a prestigious, historically conservative college finds himself in the midst of a scandal after the death of his daughter-in-law, shortly after she has claimed that the two had been involved in a nearly 20 year affair. To add to the drama, there are some unusual circumstances surrounding her death, which is ruled a suicide although never fully investigated. While I do not mean to advocate for the exploitation of an obviously tragic situation, I feel like this could have been made very interesting. However, the flaws heavily outweigh any intrigue in the content. This book is not well written. It reads very much like a textbook—a poorly edited textbook.

Many of the chapters feel disjointed, with tangential information that does not add anything to the story. Some of this I understand, in sharing the history of the college and the family of the college president. However, there were areas where it not only did not add to the story, but also simply did not make sense. When we learn that Lissa wanted to move the family to Colorado, do we really need several pages detailing the history of the city where she wanted to move? There were other sections that seemed to have been rearranged during editing, but never fully reviewed. For example, there were specific individuals with names included, but no explanation of who they were or how they were related to the story. In most cases, this explanation came later; sometimes several pages later. In at least one case, pointed out to me by a friend who attended the college, there is a person who is misidentified as connected to the university during that time.

Even disregarding these errors, which could have easily been resolved with a strong editor, there were pieces of this book that did not sit well with me. In some ways, there is a sense of injustice here: a woman is dead, there are questionable circumstances surrounding this, and it is never fully investigated. Rapoport seems to feel this, as he details the shortcomings of the investigation. There are even hints that perhaps Lissa’s husband, George IV, had something to do with her death, including possible motive and opportunity. However, this is quickly brushed over in favor of more details on how the scandal associated with Lissa’s death lead to the downfall of George III as the college president.

Lissa’s claim of the affair was used as evidence against George III, although it could not be substantiated. Perhaps this is unfair, but is that really the most important point of this story? What is the “Greek tragedy” referred to in the title: the death of Lissa, or the loss of George III’s job? The chapter that talks of Lissa’s death and the shortcomings of the investigation ends with a quip about George III and his new wife’s experiencing the “airline industry’s equivalent of a near-death experience” by being forced to watch the same poor movie on four long flights they took in the two days after Lissa’s death. This is not only tangential; it is disrespectful.

Unfortunately, this book did live up to the poor reviews that influenced me to continually push it down in my list of books to be read. It is also unfortunate, I suppose, that there is always more to say about books that are disliked than those that are enjoyed. I still will not quite claim that I wish I had not taken the time to read this. I do think that it is a story worth telling; I wish it had been handled better than this.

Boris’s thoughts: “Can we finally put this one away now? 1 paw.”

Girl with a Pearl Earring

img_0339Date Read: May 1 to May 27, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was my pick for May’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: bought because of the adaptation. I was not exactly sure how I should define this one, so I looked through my to read list for books that had adaptations. Generally speaking, I like to pair book and movie adaptations. If I see a movie I like and find out there is a book, I add it to my list; similarly, I usually make a point to see movies based on books that I’ve read. This was one that has been on my list the longest: I found out this was a book while renting the movie shortly after it came out in 2003. I purchased it for my kindle a few years later, but never seemed to get around to reading it for some reason.

I like the idea behind the novel: historical fiction meant to touch on the mystery of a painting. The painting itself is intriguing, and coupling that with a background that is generally unknown makes this a perfect subject matter. The writing was excellent, and I found Griet’s perspective interesting. However, despite enjoying the book, I felt the plot was a bit lackluster. Not much happens, there is very little character development, and while the mystery of the painting source is solved, we still do not get much of a picture of the artist.

Griet’s experience is treated as scandalous, but it is hardly that. She is merely trapped into the drama of a higher class that is unable to take blame for their own actions. With the whole novel being from her perspective, it’s difficult to say whether the intimacy she describes is truly present. Of course, I imagine that there must be some level of intimacy reached between painter and subject, but Griet perhaps exaggerates it, or simply wishes it to be something deeper. There is no doubt from her words that she has feelings for the painter, but there is nothing in his actions that really suggests he sees her as anything more than an assistant and model. Griet seems to find some resolution in her reflections on that time after Vermeer’s death, but then this is thrown into confusion and further mystery with the revelation of the letter and Vermeer’s request for the return of the painting.

Despite some issues with the plot, I did enjoy the artistic aspects included: Griet’s descriptions of the paintings to her father, the references throughout the book to other works by Vermeer. More than once I was drawn to seek out the paintings described. I also really enjoyed the discussion of color, including the actual making of colors for the painting and Griet’s discovery of color as something deeper than she imagined.

Boris’s thoughts: “Sounds a bit like a snoozer. I like snoozing. 3 paws.”

The Year of Goodbyes

img_7713Book: The Year of Goodbyes by Debbie Levy

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Following the World War II theme from last week, I have a book with a very different feel. Debbie Levy presents this book based off of her mother’s posiealbum from 1938. It is an autograph book, filled with poems written by her friends. These poems provide the framework for a series of journal entries and reflections that string together the events of the year, from the perspective of the 12 year old author.

It was an interesting read, although a bit unsettling. The book shows the gradual change from normal life to the fear and uncertainty that lead Jutta’s family to flee Germany. Goodbyes from friends leaving, or in some cases disappearing without explanation. I suppose the gradualness of the change, people slowly losing their friends, family, and rights, is what is most unsettling, knowing what comes next. While there is definitely an emotional element in the book, it seems stronger in retrospect, realizing the history of what happened just after the year of the posiealbum.

I can see this being a good book as an introduction to the history of World War II for kids in upper elementary, middle school, and perhaps high school. Much of the content is taken from the perspective of someone in that age range, and there are certainly many possible discussion topics. The poetry is an interesting element, although admittedly not really my personal cup of tea.

Boris’s thoughts: “Short and sweet and lighter than your hardcovers. 4 paws.”

Mother Night

Book: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Date Read: July 4 to July 11, 2018img_7558

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I feel that I need to preface this with a warning: I love Vonnegut. I realize that his writing is not for everyone, but I have thoroughly enjoyed all of his works that I have read. I recently read something online that described Vonnegut as the “ultimate cynic and ultimate humanist,” which I think is the perfect embodiment of my feelings as well. Vonnegut is satire and black humor, but with an undercurrent of pure, imperfect humanity.

While not his most popular or well known novel, Mother Night is perhaps the ultimate example of that dichotomy. Howard W. Campbell Jr. tells the complicated story of his involvement in the war: he was a Nazi, but secretly working on the side of the Americans. In order to be a good spy, he had to be a good Nazi. And so, of course, most of the world knew him only as the prominent Nazi that he became. After the war, he is saved from execution by his double-agency, and slowly fades into obscurity. The past, however, has a way of coming back around. I do not want to give away anything further to the conclusion, but will say that I did not quite expect it to end as it did, although in retrospect I wonder if I should have.

In the introduction of the novel, Vonnegut tells the reader the moral of the story: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” It’s laid out pretty clearly throughout the novel, so I do not intend to dwell there. The element I found more interesting was Campbell’s musings on why he was so successful: “this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.” It is something that resonates, although it does not quite sit well with me that it does. So it goes.

Boris’s thoughts: “Funny. Sad. Funny. Sad. You humans are odd. 2 paws.”

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

img_6038Book: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Date Read: April 11 to May 13, 2018

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This book was not what I was expecting. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I was expecting when I picked this one up. It came highly recommended by a friend, although I feel like our taste in books does not always have a huge overlap. It’s not that I was expecting it to be bad– I was just expecting something different than what I got.

While this novel could be called a romance, there is much more to it than that. Honestly, the romance aspect of the story was the least interesting part to me. There are several layers to the story– romance, mystery, perhaps even adventure. I particularly liked the historical aspect, tying in the events of the city in 1911, and touching on the labor movement. I knew the setting was historical, but thought the history aspect ended there. I was pleasantly surprised with the inclusion of historic events, and how they were intertwined with the characters. The firsthand depiction of the fire at the Triangle Factory was fascinating, albeit horrific. I appreciated Eddie’s perspective on the world, and how different it was from Coralie’s. Seeing the developments and changes in each of them through the novel was interesting.

After saying that, I feel that I should emphasize the word “appreciated.” There was quite a bit about Eddie that I did not like, but I do think his character is redeemable. He is cynical and selfish, and there was much in his behavior that just sort of irked me. However, his ability to view the world differently through his photography and his impulse to seek justice for the Weiss family create an appealing contrast to the other aspects of his character. I always have a greater appreciation of an author who can create a character that I do not quite like, but still want to root for.

 

Boris’s thoughts: “Too many dogs. More interested in the fish. 2 paws.”