Monthly Archives: May 2017

Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi

In February, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz). Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish man, was captured toward the end of World War II, shortly after he had joined a partisan resistance group. He was transported to Auschwitz, where he would labor and suffer deprivation for almost a year until the end of the war. His book describes the experience of Auschwitz – the grind of dehumanization, the systemic cruelty, the harsh conditions. The book most comes alive when the prisoners themselves become more alive – after the camp has been deserted by the camp command. Though the weak and starving prisoners have to fend for themselves, the desertion of their oppressors allows some of the prisoners’ humanity to re-emerge again after months of degradation. The book was published in 1947 in Italian, and in German and English in 1959. In the wikipedia entry for Primo Levi, it notes that he diligently attended Holocaust remembrance events and would tell his story in schools. He saw revisionist history at work, trying to diminish or deny the horror of the Holocaust, and his book serves as a testimony refuting those efforts. Though a chemist by trade, If This is a Man also shows that Primo Levi was just as much a writer, able to capture Auschwitz in all its brutal aspects. I’m curious to read the book he wrote about his long, harrowing return to his home after leaving Auschwitz.

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Quick takes: recently read fiction

I’m not a prolific blogger, but even by my own standards, my posting has been sparse this year. It’s just been hard to simultaneously possess the mood and the energy and the time for it.

Anyway, rather than do separate posts for the below fiction reads, here’s my quick takes on them:

In February, I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, first in a YA dystopian fantasy series. It was really really boring. I only finished it because I own it.

In March, I read Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice. The author is Chilean and used a standardized test format as a vehicle for satire. I can’t say that it made much of an impact on me, but it was good to try some translated slightly experimental fiction.

I don’t read much middle grade fiction, but my sister gave me Cynthia Kadohata’s kira-kira as a gift a couple Christmases ago. Winner of the Newbery Medal, this novel is about two Japanese-American sisters who move with their parents from the Midwest to Georgia in the 1950’s. I appreciated the relationship between the two sisters – loving, but not immune to sibling squabbles – and the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity that was very interesting. And it’s a tear-jerker too, so, you’ve been warned.

My book club read for this year was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s a family saga that follows the descendants of two half-sisters. One half-sister is taken on a slave ship from Ghana to the United States. The other half-sister’s family is – at least initially – complicit in the slave trade while remaining in Ghana. Each chapter captures the story of one generation in each family line. As with all novels in this format, there will be certain people’s stories that resonate more than others. I found the Ghana chapters fascinating because it was a history that I was less familiar with. However, the chapters that were most emotionally resonant with me were the one about a descendant in Baltimore living in fear of the Fugitive Slave Law and a later chapter about a descendant in the Reconstruction-era South arrested under ridiculous pretenses and, as a prisoner, forced to work in the mines. An impressive book overall.

I read most of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in an airport. It is the perfect airport book – page-turning family drama, great character dynamics, a little mystery. The ads for the TV show made me curious about the book, and now I want to watch the TV show.

In the romance vein, I read new-to-me author Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, which I really enjoyed. I also read Lucy Parker’s Pretty Face, her follow-up to Act Like It. I think I liked Pretty Face even more than Act Like It. The challenges of the relationship are real, the dialogue is great, and it’s just a perfect combination of chemistry and humor. I also picked up the latest Julie James’ The Thing About Love. I think this is her first that has a female FBI agent as a protagonist? (She has a whole series that is FBI agents and district attorneys.) Anyway, Julie James is a reliably good author and The Thing About Love was no exception.

Despite romance being nearly every girl’s goal in Rona Jaffe’s 1950’s classic The Best of Everything, it is not a romantic book. Set in New York City, the book follows three young women who work for a publishing firm. All are working girls, but the expectation and hope of each is to find love and marriage (with the possible exception of Caroline, who seems to have more career aspirations than the others). However, the world is of course horribly sexist and the women find themselves having to navigate the minefields of lascivious bosses and callous rich playboys. Jaffe is writing a world that she knew and it shows – she captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.

Just before the fifth book of the Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series came out, I read the second: The Queen of Attolia. As with the first book, the slow build-up absolutely pays off. Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey. I love the character of Gen, and his character evolves in this book in compelling ways. The only part of the book I did not love was protracted passages of military strategy. I know it supported the world-building, but I just wanted to get back to scenes of conversations and action.

The most recent fiction book I’ve completed is Elizabeth Elo’s North of Boston. It’s a mystery set mostly in Boston. Elo packs a lot into her book. I particularly enjoyed the complexity of her main character, Pirio Kasparov. The book starts with the funeral of Pirio’s friend, who died in a boating hit-and-run. Pirio was on the boat too but managed to miraculously survive floating in the cold water for a long time (which makes the US Navy very interested in her). There are some plot turns that stretch credulity, but I didn’t really care. I liked the crazy stuff. I was however super annoyed that Pirio was given a love interest. It wasn’t believable and it wasn’t necessary. It came late in the book, so I had been getting excited that I might have a book in my hands about a single person who stays single throughout. But alas, here came a rushed romantic subplot – a tiny one, but a terrible one.

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

1962. 214 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love

In January, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960, the author went on a road trip around the U.S. with his dog Charley. (I loved that one of his first visits was to Maine, my home state.) As with his novels, Steinbeck displays good humor and is incredibly insightful about people, to include himself. Reading this book so soon after the Presidential inauguration, this passage about Steinbeck and his sisters seemed appropriate:

Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other…

“Father would turn in his grave if he heard you.”

“No, don’t bring him in, because he would be a Democrat today.”

“Listen to you. Bobby Kennedy is out buying sacks full of votes.”

“You mean no Republican ever bought a vote? Don’t make me laugh.”

It was bitter and it was endless. We dug up obsolete convention weapons and insults to hurl back and forth . . . A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country in private. It must have been only publicly that the nation was tongue-tied.

Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature, too, are evocative – there’s a passage about redwoods that I particularly liked.

As far as the subtitle goes, Steinbeck makes no conclusions or pronouncements about America, but he does capture some of the country’s appeal and also its sins. Toward the end of the book, he stops in New Orleans to witness “The Cheerleaders” – a group of women who had been gathering at a school every morning to scream obscenely at young black schoolchildren who were being integrated into the school. The sight and the conversations he has later with other people in Louisiana on the way out make him feel very weary.

I love travel memoirs and I loved Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, so this book was definitely right up my alley.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book Chase – “I admit to being a little disappointed that Steinbeck misrepresented the origin of some of what he claims happened in Travels with Charley mainly because it makes me wonder if he simply set out with a specific agenda in mind and made sure that he got the answers that supported his own views about the social condition of the country.”

Pining for the West – “As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.”

Teresa of Shelf Love: “Travel stories bring out the humor, especially when the travel is unconventional and involves a dog! But for me, it was his treatment of the people he met that really stood out. He does seem to want to find the dignity within each one”

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