Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What's on Your Nightstand

This month should be subtitled the "Surviving the Nazis Edition" since I read mostly about life under Hitler. Sounds depressing? No, it wasn't. These are stories that focused on the human side of things. To be sure, the horror was ever-present, but these books tell the human side and tell it well. Reading all of these in the same month made me feel like John Gunther, a roving reporter, taking in the human aspects of the tragedy.

 Pre-Nazi Stage Setting

First a novel of the "dress rehearsal" for the Nazi Holocaust--the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th Century. While this novel does have flaws, it is a excellent, well researched introduction to the Genocide about which most Americans no nothing. Upper class do-gooder Elizabeth arrives with her father in a location still known today for violence, Aleppo, Syria, to provide aid to the Armenians enduring forced deportation from the Ottoman Empire. She meets an Armenian and the rest is history. The main flaw of this book is one I constantly harp on in my reviews: sledge hammering sex and profanity in whether or not it moves the story along or adds anything to the story. In this case it's a very, very annoying modern-day granddaughter narrating. She is COMPELLED to tell us who she first "f_____ed" and WHY she chooses to call it "f____ed" and why it's ok that he was Turkish. This cheapens and demeans the very real horror of the Armenian Genocide. The editor of this book should be fired and live in shame. You don't take a serious subject like Genocide and crack sex jokes around it. The whole granddaughter thing should have been surgically removed and then this would have been a vastly better book. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjolian. [I listened to the unabridged audio version.]

Then the Nazis are in Power

First up is a book B will be reading later this year. It saddens me that she's had to wait until she's a sophomore in high school, old enough to drive and, sadly, even old enough to be a parent, before she was allowed to read this in school. She's read books on the very real horrors of being an abused and abandoned child (something, even more sadly she knows about first hand from her pre-adoption life) but cannot be assigned about about organized abuse and organized killing until High School.

What a shame for this book is unforgettable. Bruno lives with his father, for whom the "Fury" has big plans, his mother (who naps and has medicinal sherries) and his sister ("a hopeless case") in Berlin. But sometime after the "Fury" and the lovely blonde lady come to dinner, his family moves to "Out-with" and Bruno struggles to make sense of his life. Forbidden to go near the fence, Bruno, like too many boys, is too curious to obey. He befriends a boy in the death camp, but has no way of knowing or comprehending that it's a death camp. The two boys become best friends of a sort and choose to ignore his father's role as "Commandant." The ending is beyond my comprehension. It's too real. This is a JUST READ IT book, to be sure. The Boy in Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

I don't normally report on books I haven't finished, but this one goes with this month and I know I will be finishing it very soon. Liesel is another child whose world is turned upside down by Hitler's program to rid Germany of enemies of the state. For her it was the political leanings of her Communist parents that set the world tipping over. A tragic train trip and then she lands with her foul-mouthed but oddly caring foster mother and her sweet, loving foster father. I've lived those nights of hers when P was little and cried several times reading about them. The father's calm and his ability to distract her in appropriate ways sees them thru the nights. This IS an odd book in that the writing style isn't normal. It's "different' and sometimes this DOES distract from the very real story it tells. The Book Thief  by Marcus Zukas.

I may be forever haunted by the characters in this breath-taking novel of Nazi-era Hungary. Andras and Klara, Tibor, Tamas and all the others filled my heart as well as my imagination. While Hungary put off deporting its Jews, that didn't mean those years were necessarily peaceful or safe. Klara and Andras love and live throughout the turmoil of the pre-war years in Paris, then in Budapest after Andras' forced return. Their feelings mature and deepen. Their family grows emotionally learns to cling to the threads of their former life. The end of the war, the memories of the old days, the starting again of life--it's all very poignant and real. This is a novel that crosses the bounds of consciousness into a novel of faith and soul and otherworldly life at its fullest. Another JUST READ IT. The Invisible Bridge: A Novel by Julie Orringer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has captured my imagination for many years. I first became aware of him in an adult Sunday School class when we were shown a clip from a docu-drama of his life. Little did I know just how fully his life would CONSUME my imagination! Would I have dared? Could I have been that strong? Wow! This is a "Man of God" and then some. From his early years until his early death, his story reads like a thriller. So many things resonated with me--his "meh" on the normal American mainline Churches who do nothing to instill faith in God, but simply feed a lifestyle (keep in mind this was in the 20s and 30s), his discovery of the deeply emotional spirituality of the African American Church and it's amazing Gospel music and his ability to stand German theologians on their head--all of these hooked me. But it was his life under the Nazis, his unwillingness to buy and sell the Nazi Party line of a re-written, Jewish free-Bible, the substitution of Mein Kampf and it's author for the Word of God and the Christ, and, when absolutely necessary to mention him--an Aryanized Jesus, and all the rest of the Nazi-fied Church that really grabbed me. Bonhoeffer stood up, was counted, and died trying to secure a free Church for all. His work was so much more than that and there's neither time nor space to discuss it all here.

The big thing here was THERE IS SO MUCH IN OUR POLITICAL LIFE TODAY that reminds me of his time. No, we certainly are not decimating populations of people whose only crime is to be a different faith or nationality. But we have looked the other way as such things have happened again in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Instead it's our complacency in the face of unrelenting political correctness that shakes me to the core. Today each group's agenda, seemingly, would be loved by Jesus. But would Jesus love each agenda? No. No more than he would have loved and embraced the teachings of Mein Kampf. Today's Christians--regardless of being liberal or conservative--need to read this book. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxes. [I listened to the unabridged audio version.]

Other Books

I also read a free kindle book, Farm Girl, by Karen Gowen Jones, about growing up in Willa Cather-land on a farm in the Great Plains. It was my kind of non-fiction--reads like a novel. She was the approximate age of the Grandmother I never really knew and who grew up similarly so this was very interesting to me.


Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen has been at or near the top of the most popular book club books for a while now and I've meant to read it. I finally did and so understand the hype. This is not a "clean" book--you even feel a little dirty after reading it though sex and language are not the only dirt. It's the lifestyle. The exploitation. The constant traveling, the lack of roots. It's the depressing bottom of the food chain life in Great Depression-Era American that really sticks to your skin like dirt from a cotton field. A Cornell-educated veterinarian is reduced to riding the rails and working for a two-bit circus. Sad, but there are many such tales from that time. Schizophrenia and the damage it does to those around it also features prominently. But there is also the focus on the brutality of this life that sullies the reader. We don't want to know. We want the show to just go on and not let us see what's out back behind the big top. This is an emotional read, but one I would not hesitate to recommend.

To lighten the mood, I also read Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich. Nothing like plucky Trenton bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, her buddy Lula, her Grandma Mazur and her boyfriends Joe and Ranger to lighten up the evening!!

See all the Nightstand books this month at 5 Minutes for Books.


Barbara H. said...

I have Bonhoeffer on my Kindle but haven't read him yet.

I've heard a little about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It sounds very intense but good.

Occasionally I have inadvertently read books from the same time period, and it does seem to enhance the reading.

Carrie said...

I LIKE your themed reading. :D

And you are right, anyone could stand to read that book on Bonhoeffer. That is an awesome and well-written book.

dstb said...

Hi Lisa,

My son and I just listened to Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The premise of the book was interesting, and perhaps if I had read it, I would have liked it more. The narrator had a British accent which just didn't work. Don't know why they couldn't have found a German narrator. Also, I struggled with the idea that this German boy couldn't get "fuhrer" correct and kept saying "fury". "fuhrer means leader, so wouldn't it be a normal German word? Anyway, it was a distraction to me.

I read the Book Thief several years ago and liked it quite a bit even though the style was quite different.

I would like to read something on the Armenian genocide, but I had looked at The Sandcastle Girls before and decided it wasn't for me. I read the novel The Gendarme several years ago that had to do with the genocide - something I was really not familiar with.

Invisible Bridge and now, Bonhoeffer, are both on my TBR list.

Thanks for the recommendations.


morninglight mama said...

While that doesn't make for a month of "light" reading, it certainly keeps you thinking as you read, I can imagine.

Thanks for sharing your perspective with us!
-Dawn, 5M4B

Cassandra said...

What an excellent list. I have to admit that I'm one of those Americans who don't know anything about the Armenian Genocide. I'm not sure it's something that was ever mentioned in school and I haven't really come across it as an adult.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a book?? I should have known! It's on my queue to watch on Netflix but now I have to wait until I find the book.

I read the Book Thief but ended up not really liking it because of the narrator (if I remember correctly). Interesting perspective but I couldn't get past reading from Death's POV.

The Invisible Bridge sounds really good and is going on my to-read list.

And the Bonhoeffer book was amazing. I want to read it again, more slowly this time. I also want to read some of the books Bonhoeffer himself wrote. There is a LOT of food for thought there.

Hopewell said...

Cassandra--I have Bonhoeffer's writings on my list now, but it will be a slow read. That kind of stuff takes me years to digest and I enjoy that type reading, but probably won't be writing my thoughts on it immediately.

Susan said...

Wow -- this WAS depressing Nazi month, huh? Enjoyed your take on each of these. I felt similarly about Book Thief. I'd like to read the Bonhoeffer, but isn't it really long? May have to wait a bit.

Hopewell said...

Susan--yes, it's a traditional heavy biography but written in a very readable style. I choose the audio for that reason.