Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Reviews – Essential World War II Stories

Five in one book review

The following five stories depict the human condition under the most severe of inhuman circumstances. From various perspectives each novel shares the story of genuine people (if not in reality then in essence) caught under the Fascist boot heels of the Third Reich during and/or after World War II. In Night by Elie Wiesel we are told the true story of Wiesel based on his own experiences as a teenaged Orthodox Jew inside the notorious concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief we see life in Germany from the perspective of a loving family caught up in the Nazi stranglehold of nationalism while not truly believing. Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel of superb quality, recounts his father’s experiences of eluding capture by the Nazi’s in war-torn Warsaw. David Benioff’s City of Thieves provides us with an insightful yet gruesome vignette of life in Leningrad during the siege and occupation of rural Russia by German storm troopers. And The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass is a fictional account of the absurdities of life in Danzig, Germany during the war. All five stories capture the duality of humanity amidst the horrors of survival, suffering, and the will to persevere in the harshest of conditions under extreme duress. There is abomination and hatred in every one of these stories, they are, after all, images of World War II, but more than that is the inherent idea that love, tenderness and the human spirit will overcome all odds. I recommend all five highly.

Elie Wiesel – Night
Markus Zusak - The Book Thief
Art Spiegelman - Maus: A Survivor's Tale
David Benioff - City of Thieves
Gunther Grass -The Tin Drum

Elie Wiesel – Night

Night is the hesitantly told story of Elie Wiesel and his family and their experiences in the German concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel suffered his teenage years as a prisoner in both prison camps and vowed never to speak of his experiences there. In Wiesel’s own words, “To be silent is impossible, to speak forbidden.”

Because of his lost spiritualism and faith in mankind he kept his word for ten years but was persuaded by French novelist Francois Mauriac to complete it for the world. Night exposes Wiesel’s struggles during and after the Holocaust and it is brilliantly written and emotionally charged. This true documentary will upset your sensibilities but the spirit of the man who endured it will most certainly lift yours.

Though not as well-known as The Diary of Anne Frank Elie Wiesel’s Night is just as compelling and heartbreaking and should be on your essential WWII “To Read” list.

5 stars out of 5

Markus Zusak - The Book Thief

The Book Thief is, in my estimation, an incredible read! From the clipped-quick style to the controversial content this is truly a magnificent story. Zusak relies on the rare ability to entrance the reader and stir emotions long subdued and held in check. He shows us that all people are capable of incredible evil and delicate, heart-rending good. Although labeled Young Adult this is by no means a children’s book. It is the height of World War II, Nazi Germany 1939-1945, and we understand from the outset that an unnatural tragedy is in the making but Zusak surprises and delights us with this powerful tale and while we all know what’s going to happen in the end I couldn’t help myself from turning pages at a furious rate to see how it would all play out. With a creative and unique plot device and a macabre twist Zusack mixes the voice of death as the narrator and the reluctant collector of souls and the enclosed world of pre-teen Liesel, the book thief of the title. Her first stolen book? The Gravediggers Handbook which should give you a pretty good idea of where this story is going to takes us. There is much to love about this book; the characters, plot devices, twists and surprises will keep you entranced throughout.

5 out of 5 stars

Art Spiegelman - Maus: A Survivor's Tale

The strength of this story is the true account of the elder Spiegelman’s struggles to survive the Holocaust as a Polish Jew in Warsaw. It is interspersed with the author’s troubled relationship with his father and the strength of the two to tell the story. The father because he has never before spoken of his experiences and the son to understand the pain and suffering his father endured.

All the characters in this work of art are represented as ethnological animals, an insightful and creative machination on the part of the artist. The Jews, for example, are depicted as scrawny mice (thus Maus, German for “mouse”), the Nazi’s as plump over-fed cats, and the Polish military officers as prodigious pigs. The only humanistic renderings in the book take place during the back story of the suicide of the author’s mother. But these graphic depictions do not distract from the powerful demonstrative story of the struggle to survive not only the worst war of our time but the worst moments in human history. In fact, they serve only to enhance it.

Wonderful storytelling and exceptional art make this a must read for the historians as well as the emotionalists among us. This book is a unique combination of docu-drama, biography, and comic-strip all rolled into one and it works on a grand scale.

5 out of 5 stars

David Benioff - City of Thieves

City of Thieves is a coming-of-age voyage (to find a dozen eggs no less) in the war torn city of Leningrad, Russia. It is the winter of 1941 and the German Army has besieged the city. Rations are non-existent, citizens are dying by the hundreds, and everyone lives in fear of being overrun by the enemy. They have no alternative but to fight for survival. Lev and Kolya, young teen-age Russians, are arrested, Lev for looting a dead paratrooper, and Kolya for desertion. With their arrests both are destined to take a short trip that ends with their backs poised against a wall brushed with blood. But before their execution in the face of a firing squad they are given a reprieve by the city’s acting military commander. They are ordered on a mission to find a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. They are given less than a week to complete their task and their ration cards are confiscated. Without a means of obtaining food what else can they do but try and fulfill the task. But in a city that has resorted to cannibalism where could they possibly find what they search for? The story develops as the two young men head off in search of the prized components.

Based on the true-life adventures of Benioff’s grandfather we are transported to a city that has fallen on the hardest of times. Starvation, desperation, and self-preservation are the only law in Leningrad and that image of desolation and destruction lays the groundwork for the rest of the story. The quest for eggs takes them to a private whore house in the woods, to Russian partisans in the rural outskirts of the city, and to a German military camp where the final stand-off is played over a chess set. Benioff explores the grief and indifference of the characters while they hide from snipers, infiltrate a line of captured prisoners and eventually find what they were looking for. Peace!

This is a true heart-rending story written with love, care and consideration. Well worth the read.

4 ½ stars out of 5

Gunther Grass – The Tin Drum

By far the oddest of the books reviewed here The Tin Drum is a direct contrast between art and war. The underlying theme is that art has the power to overcome the inhumanities of war in society. The theme of performance, music and art permeates throughout the novel.

The Tin Drum is the fictional autobiography of Oskar Matzerath and is a masterpiece of surrealism and characterization and is an exact counterpoint to City of Thieves. Oskar, at the age of three, voluntarily wills himself not to grow up after receiving a tin drum for his birthday. He develops a strained high-pitched singing voice that he uses in various ways; breaking glass, defending his drum (which he is never without), breaking and entering, tombstone inscribing, and entrancing his audience.

Much like the Russian masters Oskar’s autobiography is also the biography of his family and its history and the book delves into the manic lives of the people who affect his life. His mother, her husband Alfred, his mother’s lover and many others who cross paths are all tragic characters of the first degree.

With convoluted interwoven relationships, extramarital affairs, traveling troupes of dwarf clowns, front line battle antics, criminal anti-establishment youth gangs, jazz music, fortune and fame, tombstone engraving, the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, music recording deals, murder, a dismembered finger, and an insane asylum this story has something for everyone. You must read it to get the full effect… Try as I might, my words could never suffice.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast, Wisconsin

No comments: