Showing posts with label holocaust. Show all posts
Showing posts with label holocaust. Show all posts

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
Source: bought a copy from Norwich Bookstore at her VT event on 2/26!

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Sage Singer befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret - he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?

My Review:

I know, I know.  You're all tired of me waxing poetic about Jodi Picoult's novels.  But hear me out!  Because I just finished her newest one, and yes, I loved it...but I think you will too.

I will admit that, going in, I was feeling a little ambivalent about the topic.  I mentioned in my recent review of The Thief of Auschwitz that I am always unsure how fiction authors will be able to take on the Holocaust in a way that is original, and thus worthwhile for the reader.  I'm not trying to say they shouldn't write about it (I think it's important to do so, to continue sharing the experience of those victimized).  But it's fiction, not nonfiction--so the author does have some responsibility for putting a unique twist or angle on it in order to keep the interest of the reader.  Not easy with a subject that's been tackled so many times.

However, this book is in three parts, with the second part told from the POV of Minka, Sage's grandmother and a Holocaust survivor.  And within a few pages of starting Minka's narrative, I knew this was not a repeat of novels past.  As you would expect from this subject, Minka's story is simply horrific, and Picoult glosses over nothing.  There were times that I had to put the book aside for a while and take a breather before returning.  And the truly horrible thing is, having attended the author's tour event last month, I knew that most of these hideous events were NOT fictional.  Picoult interviewed many Holocaust survivors and used parts of their actual stories as events in the novel (she recounted them at the event and then I later recognized them in the book).  Knowing that made it all the more heart-wrenching to read, and lent an air of truth to this fictional tale.

As expected from any Picoult novel, the book is full of moral and ethical questions.  Do we all have good and evil within us?  How does one reign over the other?  And if someone practices more evil than good, does that make it okay to hurt them back?  Can you ever forgive them, or yourself?  It gives you a lot to contemplate, and to make it more intriguing, you have a lot of angles to contemplate from.  There is Sage and Josef's story, but then you also get Minka's POV, as well as a side story that she wrote in her childhood.  All of these perspectives are essentially attacking the same questions, but as a reader, it gives you a fuller understanding of the moral ambivalence of the novel.  And Picoult does a wonderful job intersecting all of these views throughout the book, leaving you guessing about what direction it will eventually take.

If you've read any JP novels before, you're probably wondering--is there a big twist at the end?  She is certainly known for that.  There is a that is still sticking in my brain and making me replay the novel in my mind quite a bit.  I won't say it's completely unpredictable (you get the sense that something is afoot once Part 3 begins, and I kind of figured it out a few pages before it was revealed), but it's not blatant either.  Certainly leaves you wanting to devour the last third of the book, that's for sure.

My one complaint about this one?  Too many current event/technology references!  I feel like Picoult was trying way too hard to make her book "hip" and contemporary by throwing these things in willy-nilly.  Constant reference to iPhones, Flip cameras (aren't they outdated already?), FiOS, Snooki, was a bit much, and is going to make this book sound extremely dated in about 5 years time.  I've never noticed this in her other novels and I'm not sure why she went in that direction here (it really wasn't necessary given the topic at hand).  It didn't ruin the novel by any means, but it was very noticeable.

My final verdict: this book was outstanding, up there on my list of Picoult faves.  She handles an often-used historical event with amazing accuracy and sensitivity, while also weaving a complex tale that will leave you stuck to the book and wishing your son would nap for just five more minutes, for heaven's sake, because you only have 10 pages left.  Not that I would know anything about that.  It's just an example.  The point is, READ IT!

Other reviews of The Storyteller:
So Many Books, So Little Time
...But Books Are Better
All The Books I Can Read

Have you read any other Holocaust-centric novels that really moved you?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch

Title: The Thief of Auschwitz
Author: Jon Clinch
Publisher: unmediated ink (self-published)
Publication Date: January 2013
Source: e-book provided by the author for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads :

"The camp at Auschwitz took one year of my life, and of my own free will I gave it another four."

So begins The Thief of Auschwitz, the much-anticipated new novel from Jon Clinch, award-winning author of Finn and Kings of the Earth.

In The Thief of Auschwitz, Clinch steps for the first time beyond the deeply American roots of his earlier books to explore one of the darkest moments in mankind’s history—and to do so with the sympathy, vision, and heart that are the hallmarks of his work.

Told in two intertwining narratives, The Thief of Auschwitz takes readers on a dual journey: one into the death camp at Auschwitz with Jacob, Eidel, Max, and Lydia Rosen; the other into the heart of Max himself, now an aged but extremely vital—and outspoken—survivor. Max is a renowned painter, and he’s about to be honored with a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington. The truth, though, is that he’s been keeping a crucial secret from the art world—indeed from the world at large, and perhaps even from himself—all his life long.

The Thief of Auschwitz reveals that secret, along with others that lie in the heart of a family that’s called upon to endure—together and separately—the unendurable.

My Review:

Remember back when I said I was struggling with self-published novels?  To summarize; I said that I had had very bad luck with self-pubs in the past (which is why my review policy says I do not accept them for review).  However, I had been solicited to review several that sounded really, really promising, so I took the plunge and agreed to read two of them.  The first was Bluff by Lenore Skomal, which, though it had its hitches, was overall a very coherent and engaging read.  My cold reviewer heart began to melt, just a tad.

The Thief of Auschwitz is the second self-published novel that I decided to read and review.  This is partially because I was intrigued by Jon Clinch's personal publication journey.  You can read about it HERE, but basically, he had what so many authors covet: a publishing deal with Random House.  Even so, it ended up causing him more frustration than success, so for his newest novel, he decided to self-publish.  His "microbrewery approach," as he calls it, allows him to have more control over the success or failure of his writing, from the social media outreach, to the sales numbers on Amazon.  It was a risky move, but admirable--and so far, it seems to be working.

Okay, enough talking about how Jon Clinch kicked the publishing industry in the ass.  What did I think of the book?

I thought...the book rocked.

Gripping, masterfully written, profound--I sound like a flippin' book jacket, but The Thief of Auschwitz is all of these things.

The Holocaust is a difficult subject for authors to tackle, because it's been written about so many times before.  Adding another fictional perspective runs the risk of either not hitting the mark that the nonfiction accounts describe, or repeating the impassioned efforts of other fiction novels.  However, The Thief of Auschwitz is not lacking in authenticity or sentiment, and in fact captures the harrowing everyday lives of the death camp prisoners in a way that I found to be remarkably unique.

Clinch's writing style is much of what drives that uniqueness.  Most Holocaust books I've read (everything from Anne Frank to Wiesel's Night) focus very much on using passion-filled language to nail down the emotional core of that time period--which, of course, is appropriate and often unavoidable.  However, Clinch's novel speaks in a crisp, straightforward manner about the things the Rosen family had to do to survive in the camp, and in so doing, the emotional aspects seep out between the lines.  It is amazing to see how the family moves from being carefree and compassionate, to hardened and survival-focused by the time we reach the end:

"The good that there's been a catastrophe on the rail project and scores of men have died."

Plus, the mystery.  The story of the family's time in the camp is told alongside Max's modern-day perspective, as he (now a world-renowned painter at the end of his career) slowly reveals a secret that he has been keeping from the art world.  Clinch builds the tension in both the historical narrative and Max's secret in the last 10% of the novel, to the point where you literally will not want to put it down.  All is not revealed until the very end, and while it's not a Gone-Girl-esque atom-bomb ending, it's still a reveal that takes your breath a bit, and fits with the emotional climate of the rest of the novel.

My only (small) gripe about this novel is the title.  While there is thievery involved (and it relates to the central mystery of the story), I just felt like it didn't capture the majority of the plot very well.  There are so many other things that I think the title could capture, about art and beauty and love through adversity, but it just doesn't.  Again, this is a very small disappointment, as no matter what the title, the book itself is still awesome.

Final verdict: read this book.  If you already gravitate towards books about the Holocaust, this is a must.  But even if you don't, the Rosen family's story is still one that is painstakingly told and worth experiencing.

(As for me and self-pubs?  Clinch knocked this one out of the park, but I'm still taking it day by day...)
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