Monthly Archives: January 2010

Defiance by Nechama Tec

Defiance by Nechama Tec

1993. 296 papes (not including endnotes and index). Paperback.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Defiance, also known as Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, describes how the leadership of Tuvia Bielski and his brothers helped save 1200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Belorussia.  Unwilling to be taken to the ghetto by the Germans, the Jewish brothers escaped to the forest, which they knew well.  They were joined by family and friends there, though they also lost some of their loved ones.  Their partisan community – the Bielski Otriad – continued to grow in numbers as others escaped to the forest from the ghettos and death.  All Jews were welcomed, an anomaly among other partisan fighter groups who were often anti-Semitic and also saw the elderly, infirm, women and children as burdens.

Review:

When trying to describe the writing style of Defiance, the word I came up with was “transparent.”  In some non-fiction books, the author never refers directly to his or her sources.  Nechama Tec directly quotes from the people she interviewed and sometimes comments on the interview itself.  In this, Defiance is like a journalistic account or a scholarly work.  I use the word “transparent” because Nechama Tec really lets the story shine through her writing.  This is an amazing piece of history and she uses her craft to get us close to the first-person accounts while providing organization, insight and explanation.

Though Defiance is the story of the entire Bielski Otriad, it is also a portrait of its charismatic leader, Tuvia Bielski.  The author managed to conduct a short interview with him in 1987, two weeks before he died.  Most of her knowledge of his story was then culled from interviews with his family and from people who lived in the Bielski Otriad.  Throughout the book, Tec adds to her portrait of Tuvia, trying to figure out what made him tick, what kind of leader was he, what were his flaws, and how did he succeed?

Other aspects of the book explore the survival of the Otriad.  How did these Jewish people, devastated by loss of family and homes, make a community in the forest?  Nechama Tec is matter-of-fact here.   Though all were welcome to the community, there was a hierarchy of sorts.  Those with guns, who could fight, were at the top.  Those who had no skills to provide were at the bottom.  Everyone was guaranteed food and a place, but some found ways to get more or better.

Tec spends an entire chapter on the fate of women during this time and in that region, and then specifically focuses on their role in the Bielski Otriad.  I really appreciate that she included that chapter.  She also effectively sketches out the community’s precarious situation.  Not only was the group hiding from the Germans, but they were uneasy allies with the Soviets and other partisan fighting groups.  Still, they survived even in this.  Thus Defiance is a story of hope in the context of immense tragedy.

Book / movie comparison

The story of the Bielski Otriad truly deserves to be better known.  Obviously, the recent movie adaptation has helped generate more exposure and interest in the story.  I wouldn’t have picked this book off of the shelves if I hadn’t seen the trailer of the movie.  So in that the movie has done right.

Unfortunately, when I finally watched the movie last night, I was disappointed.  I had made the mistake of reading the book first.   I understand when films have to make composite characters and play around a little with events and chronology.  But I had a hard time with some of the changes that the film made.

For instance, in the film, Tuvia Bielski said that the women would fight alongside of the men.  This never happened.  According to the book, only one woman in the Otriad was known to have had a gun and gone on food missions and that was the wife of one of the Bielski brothers.  If a woman joined the Otriad in possession of a gun, it would be given to a man.  Such a change in the film seems motivated by a desire to soften those aspects of history that we don’t like.  To me it seems a disservice to pretend the inequality didn’t happen.

I thought that the portrayal of Tuvia Bielski made him appear less commanding than he was, and also that the Otriad appeared to act haphazardly in the film.  From Tec’s description, Bielski was not a reluctant leader and the Otriad – though imperfect – was organized and resourceful.

One last thing: at one point in the film, a lot of the people in the community get killed.  This too, did not happen.  Almost all of the people who stayed with the Otriad survived the war, possibly about ninety-five percent.  That was the main triumph of this story – that almost all of the people who sought refuge with them were saved.  I did not like that the movie took away some of that triumph.

I will say that the DVD extras featuring the children and grandchildren of Tuvia Bielski and his brother were fantastic and added memories of post-WWII Tuvia Bielski that were not described in the book.

So if you’ve seen the film and liked it, read the book.  As usual, the book is better.

Other reviews of the book:

Bollocks Busters

Vulpes Libris

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2010 Biodiversity Challenge

People need to stop devising interesting reading challenges.  I’m like the moth to the flame here.

Host: Classical Bookworm

URL: http://classical-bookworm.blogspot.com/2010/01/international-year-of-biodiversity.html

My involvement:  I don’t think I’ll do everything for the challenge, but I’ll try maybe for Biodiversity Bonanza: one book from each sub-challenge.  For sure, my recent library pick-up Grail Bird will help meet the Bye-Bye (books about endangered species) sub-challenge.

Bye-Bye: The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by Tim Gallagher [review]

Biomes: Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll [review]

Back Yard: City of Trees by Melanie Choukas-Bradley [review]

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Library Loot

I returned a bunch of books at the library today, including one unread: Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo.  I think I will try picking it up again some other time, but I had spied a number of lackluster responses to it and the first couple of pages weren’t grabbing me.

So, here is the new loot:

The Alibi Club by Francine Mathews – As the giant swatsika and the tiny Eiffel tower on the cover indicate, this thriller involves Nazis and is set in Paris.

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by Tim Gallagher – this is the true story about how a bird once thought extinct had its existence finally proven in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta.

Stone Song: A Novel of the Life of Crazy Horse by Win Blevins – While looking for this book in my library, I found out my library has a separate section for Westerns.  Anyway, Crazy Horse is the man who led the victory over General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone – I had gone to the library specifically to get the first three books of my loot and then I let browsing and serendipity lead to my fourth choice.  This is about a young African-American couple starting out their life in 1940’s Philadelphia.

Library Loot is hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Marg at Reading Adventures.

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Teaser Tuesday: One Bullet Away

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

Here’s mine:

By the time we processed that the Iraqi military was “declared hostile” and could be engaged without provocation, the trucks had stopped, and uniformed men stood next to them with their hands in the air.  Half of the battalion was already across the highway, so each passing Humvee simply trained its guns on the bewildered Iraqis and continued north into the desert beyond the road.  After all the tough talk, all the doubt, fear, and wonder, our first encounter with Saddam’s army ended with us pretending we hadn’t seen them.  I was grateful that we had scraped by without anyone on either side being dumb enough to fire.

p. 196 of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick

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Trip to Second Story Books in D.C.

Despite the cold and windy weather, I decided to visit Second Story Books in D.C. yesterday.  I hadn’t been there in a number of years.  They were having a 20% off sale which was cool.

My finds:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt – I’ve heard many good things about this one.  I remember one of the reviewers of Books on the Nightstand praised it highly.

Love Begins in Winter: Stories by Simon Van Booy – I heard about this first on Olduvai Reads

A visit to the bookstore’s natural history and adjacent travel literature section produced:

The Stork’s Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside by Laura Lynne Williams – Non-fiction book about an American woman, who worked for World Wildlife Fund in Moscow, and then married a Russian park director.  She describes their life in a rural Russian village.

The Blue Nile by Alan Moorehead – Since reading Peter Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East last year, which had a slight emphasis on Egyptian history, I’ve been more interested in reading books about Egypt.  Also, I’ve been interested in reading ‘older’ travel literature.  This one was originally published in the 1960’s.

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It’s Not All Flowers And Sausages by Mrs. Mimi

It’s Not All Flowers And Sausages by Mrs. Mimi (a.k.a. Jennifer Scoggin)

2009. 239 pages. paperback.

From: Per usual, the public library

In a nutshell:

This is a blog turned book.  A second grade teacher describes her experience teaching for her seventh year at a public school in Harlem.  Her rants are mostly directed at administrative ineptitude, but can also include lazy colleagues and unhelpful parents.  The children can be exasperating but are not the targets of her rants.

Review:

I had never heard of the author’s blog before, but I saw the book in my library’s new book section and it looked intriguing.  I have no aspirations of being a teacher, but am curious to read books which dish about a particular profession.

The author’s style is very informal, which makes sense as this started as a blog.  Strangely, I found this conversational style a bit off-putting at times, rather than inviting.  I felt that we got off on the wrong foot by the introduction, when Mrs. Mimi launches a tirade against people who think her job is cute or easy.  Though I am not a teacher, I don’t think any of these things, so I didn’t take her attack personally.  But the almost, well, bitterness displayed was a bit much to throw at the reader from the beginning.  I felt like she could have reined her frustration and anger in while writing the book and still made the points she wanted to make.

Don’t get me wrong: the stories she tells are fascinating in their demonstration of public school ridiculousness.  Like the time when the principal tells the teachers that they will not be receiving paper for their classrooms because the school is “Going Green” and yet the administration still has paper for what they do.  Or the time when the vice-principal neglects to tell the teacher that the field trip has been canceled until all the kids are in their coats and ready to go.  And some other gems like that can be found in the book.

I feel like this book’s target audience is other elementary school teachers.  My friend D. works as an ESL teacher and when I read her a section of the book, she nodded in emphatic agreement, as in, Amen to that.  So I think it would be cathartic in that sense, for teachers to read that other teachers are going through the same types of crap.

As for me, non-teacher in nice office job, I found the stories she told from the front-lines of public school education to be interesting, even if I didn’t always like the tone or style of the book.

I welcome recommendations for non-fiction books that dish about a particular profession (not necessarily education, but that is fine too).

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

2008. 274 pages. Hardcover.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This is an epistolary novel and the story is told through letters.  In 1946, London writer Juliet Ashton starts corresponding with several residents of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during World War II and these residents had started the literary society initially as a cover for a verboten pig roast dinner.  The burgeoning friendship between Juliet and her warm-hearted correspondents leads her to visit the island.

Review:

At this point, I feel like the last person to have read this novel.  Over the summer, a former teacher and then also my aunt recommended it to me.  I saw it on the bestseller lists and plastered all over the blogosphere.  My initial wariness on reading it was partially due to the title.  It seemed ‘cute’ and like it might be filled with artificial bonhemie.  Not at all.  I started and finished this book yesterday.

I loved Juliet Ashton’s funny and warm writing voice and you could see why she would make such fast friends with the Guernsey folk.  I also liked that she didn’t take herself too seriously.  The core of the story is Juliet, but the core of the story-within-the story, the Occupation of Guernsey, is Elizabeth McKenna.

Elizabeth McKenna fits into a character type that I often see in recent literature – the “progressive saint.”  She’s an independent spirit, ahead of her time.  She always knows the right thing to say and does the right things, in the moral perspective of the novel.  Elizabeth might have been a too-perfect and thus insufferable character if not distanced by the epistolary structure and the fact that all the stories about her are told by other characters and not by her.  I could like her as this legendary figure, with the picture of her character burnished and shined by the loyalty and love of her friends.

Juliet and Elizabeth are just two of a wonderful jumble of characters, and the writers did a good job of making the characters’ voices fairly distinct from one another.

I’m thinking that post-war England (1940’s and 1950’s) is a literary setting that works well for me.  In the past year, both I Capture the Castle and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets became quick favorites of mine.  So if any one has more recommendations of books set in this place and time, let me know!

Regarding The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, if you’re a rare person who hasn’t read this book yet, I recommend it.

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