Book Review

A Girl In Hitler Youth

The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi ChildhoodThe Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood by Ursula Mahlendorf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ursula Mahlendorf was born the same year as my mother. They were kids during WW2, teenagers by the end of it. While my mother was in a concentration camp, she was in Hitler Youth–so you can imagine the personal interest I bring to it. I found it a gripping memoir, as much for her personal story before, during and after the war as for its perspective on indoctrination and subsequent guilt.

Mahlendorf’s writing is lucid and evocative. I came to the memoir to find out more about the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel), the teenage girls’ branch of Hitler Youth. But ultimately what kept me riveted to the book is her personal story, and her ability to bring it to life layered with reflections of her older self.

She grew up to become a pacifist, left-leaning, pluralistic professor of literature and feminist studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. I would have liked to know more about how that change occurred. For example, she mentions that she came to know holocaust survivors personally–I’d have liked to hear how she related to them and how that affected her as well as them.

Having said all that, the memoir is gripping for what it is: the story of a determined and highly intelligent girl living through the Nazi era in a single parent household. She was neglected by a mother who drank and partied when she wasn’t consumed by the demands of survival, and Mahlendorf had little love from any quarter after her grandmother’s death. The only thing that gave her a sense of belonging was Hitler Youth until she discovered that it was based on hateful lies. And yet, despite betrayal and rage at the way she was shaped, she re-shaped herself in an image of her choosing.

It’s a book that excited me while I was reading it, that left me with the sense of having been elsewhere and elsewhen, wanting to talk it over. As soon I was done with it, I was passing it around.

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Book Review, Literary

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Buried Giant is a different book from Ishiguro’s previous ones, and that’s something I admired before I read it. But it was an interview I saw with him that made me pick it up. By that time, I’d already forgotten what The Buried Giant was about, but I was touched and impressed by what he said about taking 10 years to write it: that there are enough books in the world already, and he wants to be sure that everything he writes is a contribution, however small, to the existing body of literature. This book is that.

It’s not The Remains of The Day. It’s an allegory, a fable. Ishiguro wanted to write about memory and devastating ethnic conflicts, and had considered writing about something within his own memory, but decided against that approach because he didn’t want the conversation to be about the particulars of Yugoslavia or Rwanda. So instead he set the story in the historical gap between Roman and early medieval Britain, in the echo of Arthur’s days.

It’s the story of an elderly couple searching for their son and their past after decades of a mysterious mist that has softened and erased memory. They encounter knights, monks, warriors, orphans and an elderly dragon who has saved and seared the mental landscape.

I loved this book. It’s not showy but it’s loving, honest, gentle and unflinching about the best and worst of being human, of passion, of what memory gives us, how it drives us.

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Book Review, Literary

A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944

A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944
A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944 by Willy Peter Reese
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The powerful memoir of a German infantry soldier during WW2, A Stranger to Myself was written in 1944 a few months before the author died, drawn from his detailed journals written at the Front. Because of that, it has an immediacy that other books, with their post-war hindsight, lack. This isn’t a who-what-when of battles, but the profound emotional and spiritual impact of war on a young man on the ground, speaking to the experience of the unspeakable. German war memoirs are far fewer than those of the allies. Even this one wasn’t published until a few years ago: Reese’s mother was unable to find a publisher during her lifetime. I am very glad for ebooks in this case: I wouldn’t be able to find it in paper. But I was able to download it and in a weekend, I’d finished it. I am still thinking about it.

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Book Review, Literary

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a memoir about life as an immigrant child from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, a subject that I’ve become very interested in because of this memoir. I rated this a four (though I am against ratings really) because the first part, about Shteyngart’s childhood, is fantastic. Had it stayed that way, I would be raving about it, had it not been that good, I wouldn’t bother adding it to my books.

The writing about his childhood is hilarious, biting, vivid. I was really struck by how little was different in the Soviet Union, by way of material life, in the 1970s from 1930s Poland (my parents’ memories). His parents even treated his asthma with cupping (in Yiddish bankes): heating small glass vessels to create a vacuum which are then put on the ailing person’s back, thereby sucking up the skin to suck up the vapours or something. My grandmother was a specialist in “laying bankes” in the pre-ww2 years.

The next part of the story, his years of being stoned and drunk in high school and university were pages I got through for the sake of the first part, and because even there his writing was good enough to keep me going, even if I was disappointed that as I went there was just more of the same.

The last part of the memoir covers his return to Russia with his parents, and that felt to me inhibited and truncated, abruptly so. His parents are still alive, and I had the feeling that there was a lot more to say, and that if he were to write his memoirs when he was older, it would be more satisfying to read, both because of maturity and freedom.

He was on the jury of the Giller Prize, the year that Web of Angels wasn’t listed, and, oddly enough, reading this memoir was a relief. I could see why my novel wouldn’t be his cup of tea. Too bad The Singing Fire wasn’t up in 2012–I think that would have been more in his line. But after all this time, the sting has gone out of it thanks to Little Failure. So for that alone, it should get four stars!

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Book Review, Literary

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December
Tenth of December by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brilliant stories. My favourite was only two pages and in that compact space told the story of a father’s rage and pathos through the vehicle of an unusual scarecrow. A book I want to own.

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Book Review, Literary

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book people seem to love or hate. I did laugh out loud. It’s a tall tale, not my favorite genre usually: the hundred year old man runs away from an old age home, has adventures, tells the story of his life, which is the story of the 20th century and his unlikely encounters with presidents and dictators. But I was thoroughly entertained and amused by both the front and back stories. It was a great romp. A sort of Swedish Candide. I keep recommending it to people who may or may not thank me for that.

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Book Review, Literary

‘Small Damages,’ by Beth Kephart

“Dreamlike” is one word for Beth Kephart’s latest novel, “Small Damages,” in which an American teenager is exiled to Spain after she gets pregnant. Her percolating story emerges through Kep­hart’s lilting prose in that same hazy way you’d meander through the narrow white streets of Seville in the noontime sun or confront the hot, dry winds, redolent of foreign smells and flavors, on a ranch in the Spanish countryside. The reader is lost and found and lost and found again.

via ‘Small Damages,’ by Beth Kephart – NYTimes.com.

I couldn’t be more pleased or agree more completely with every note of praise for Beth’s writing. I have been following Beth’s blog and work for the last few years, and it’s been my privilege to do so. Beth doesn’t compromise her work or the beauty of language despite conventional “wisdom” (there’s a misuse of a word and an oxymoron!). I can’t clap loud enough for the true wisdom of the NYTBR in bringing this to the attention of all.

Her work engages adults and teens alike, those who already know that they love well written characters and beautiful language and those who discover it through her work. Again I say hurray!!! If you haven’t already ordered Small Damages, please do!