Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Book #113: Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those books that will punch you in the gut and knock all the air out of you.

It has two main plots. In the first, a young American Jew – Also named Jonathan Safran Foer – goes to Ukraine to find the woman who he thinks may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by his translator Alex – who butchers English amazingly – and Alex’s grandfather. Together they try to find the village Jonathan’s grandfather fled.

The second plot takes place largely in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod, known on maps as Sofiowka. Trachimbrod is a largely Jewish shtetl, and it’s filled to the brim with neurotic, quirky people. At the center of the story is Brod, Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who was found mysteriously by a river one day. From Brod’s strange origins and childhood, the narratives moves through life in the shtetl to Brod’s adulthood an marriage, continues through the years until it reaches Jonathan’s grandfather.

As Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather search for the now-nonexistent Trachimbrod, they are drawn closer to a painful, tragic truth and a past that they could never have expected.

When I read Everything Is Illuminated in college, it totally shattered me. I loved everything about it and immediately placed it on my list of top-ten books I’ve ever read. At the time I was really interested in Jews and World War II, and the tragic nature of the book and the fact that it was an interesting spin on the “Jews in World War II” narrative (it’s about Jews, and World War II plays a minor role, but it’s not a Holocaust book) were bound to make me love it.

I’ll be honest – this time around I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. It could be that in the four years since I’ve read the book I’ve built it up in my mind to be this great literary masterpiece or that my interests have shifted a bit, I don’t know. For some reason, for the first third of the book I kept thinking, “I fell in love with this book? Really?” It wasn’t that it was bad. It was still very good, it just wasn’t the earth-shattering read I remembered.

But then I started to get more invested. The plot moved along and things like Alex’s bad English started to feel less gimmicky and I found myself getting sucked in. By the end as we approached the terrible thing my heart was racing and I kept telling myself not to be so invested because I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to be crushed.

But crushed I was.

It’s hard to say where I come down on Everything Is Illuminated. I still loved it. As a whole it had much the same effect on me this time as it did four years ago. But at the same time, I was more aware of some of the flaws and parts that felt gimmicky or didn’t seem necessary. It’s not a perfect book. It’s far from it. But in the end I felt so shattered that I’m inclined to be forgiving of the flaws, because damn, this books makes you feel.

So I still loved it. It’s still a book I’ll readily recommend to anyone who asks. If I see someone reading it or it comes up in conversation, I’ll still say, “Man. That is a good book. It’s one of my favorites.” But is it still in my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list?

I don’t know…

Either way, read it. It’s beautiful and haunting and it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Victim


Book #38: Slaughterhouse-Five

This was my second reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The first time I read it, I focused on the funny parts. What with the aliens and Billy Pilgrim being “unstuck in time” and “So it goes” and all, I thought it was a hilarious novel.

This time was different. This time I thought it was beautiful. It helps that Vonnegut’s writing is beautiful. Sometimes, one sentence knocked me over and made me stop and thing (“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”). But what really struck me was all the things Vonnegut says about time and death.

Slaughterhouse-Five felt like a meditation on time and moments. Billy Pilgrim learned to see time differently from the Tralfamadorians. Basically, time doesn’t have to be linear. It can be experienced in “out of order” or all at once. I really, really liked the image of humans as centipedes, moving from baby to child to teenager to adult to old person, all at once. It comforts me to think that you can be young, old, and everything in between at the same time, somehow.

I think about time passing and the way people age all the time. Maybe it’s because I’m 22 and feel really stuck between being a college kind and a ‘real adult.’ I dunno. Either way, I like to think that moments in time can be stopped and frozen forever, even if they’re in the past. Slaughterhouse-Five kind of lets me think that way and reflect on those things.

And of course, I couldn’t end a blog post about this book without talking about “So it goes.” After I read Slaughterhouse-Five the first time, I started saying that (or thinking it) when I read obituaries or heard about deaths. It’s one of the most coldly distant, yet accurate and heartfelt statements about death. Death is a thing that happens. So it goes.

But what Billy says about what he learned when he was in a zoo on Tralfamadore was that “when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.” It’s comforting, isn’t it, to think that when people die, they’re not really gone. They’re still there, just at different points in time.

Whether you believe that that’s literally true or not, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at the world.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Jude the Obscure

Meaningless(ness): The Question of Trauma

Gosh. It’s so hard to write about Holocaust literature sometimes. (Says the girl who wrote a 30-page paper on Holocaust literature) It’s just that even though they are all different and they’re all unique, Holocaust memories/stories are generally all the same (like I said before). What I’ve noticed is that (hopefully without this turning into the start of some thesis/analysis of common themes in Holocaust literature) many Holocaust writers deal with the question of trauma: how to deal with its aftermath, how to describe it to outsiders, and what to do with the traumatic experience.

What sets Fatelessness apart, I think, is how Imre Kertész has his narrator deal with trauma. The whole time he is a prisoner, the boy muses on what has put in him the concentration camp and what is happening to him. I think the most powerful part of the book is when he returns home. He begins to encounter people who have only heard of the “horrors” of the concentration camps. They can’t understand him.

A rhetoric-driven reporter wants him to tell all about the “hell” he lived through. Basically, what the boy winds up saying is, “What hell?” Further, the family and friends he returns to also can’t make sense of what has happened to him. They want to know if he is going to move, or how he will start a new life and move on from the Holocaust.

In Which I Go On A Senior Paper-Related Tangent

This seems to be a common thing in the Holocaust books I’ve read. The writers are always struggling with how to tell their stories, to whom to tell their stories, and which stories are best left untold and, eventually, forgotten. Further, there is the trouble that no one can truly know what the Holocaust was like unless they lived through it. No story, narrative, picture, or visit to a concentration camp can give someone who wasn’t there any inkling of what it is like.

Primo Levi wrote that the words we have are not adequate to describe the Holocaust. He argues that if the camps had lasted longer, “a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing near” (If This Is A Man). So, really, nothing Kertész’s narrator could have told the reporter would have given the man the glimpse into “hell” that he wanted.

Further, the narrator’s family, who wants to help him move on and find a new life, does not understand that he can’t just leave his experience behind. Just like Levi, Elie Wiesel, and many other Holocaust memoirists, writers, and survivors, Kertész’s boy knows that he will have to live with the concentration camp inside him forever. Like the other writers who talk about this and doubt their ever understanding or making sense of it, Kertész has his narrator reflect on understanding. However, he comes out at an interesting place in which he realizes that he must gradually reflect on what happened to him, but without trying to make sense of it:

“As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us. By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it. And while you come to understand everything gradually, you don’t remain idle at any moment. . . you act, you move, you fulfill the new requirements of every step of development. If, on the other hand, there were no schedule, no gradual enlightenment, if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it’s possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it.”

With this passage, right at the end of the book, I think Imre Kertész very, very eloquently sums up the aftermath of trauma. Understanding must come gradually. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, I don’t think. But maybe it does help us to understand things a little bit more.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A Tale of Two Cities (which I’ve already finished. Yay being behind on blogging!)

Book #6: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Next, I’m reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres.

Corelli's Mandolin book cover

I am excited for this book. I’m going to be a historian someday (I hope) and World War II is my favorite period (closely followed by the Cold War). Any time I get to read a book, fiction or nonfiction, about 1933-1945, I get pretty stoked. Of course, my studies mostly focus on Germany, so I don’t know a whole lot about Italy or the Italians’ experience in WWII. I’m willing to learn, though. Maybe reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will inspire me to study it.

Anyway, this book is about people living on the Greek island of Cephalonia in the early days of the war, before the Italians invaded. It’s a love story of sorts, I think. It’s about war, truth, history, and what makes the history we read in history books (according to Goodreads and the Big Book I got the list from). It really seems like this book is PERFECT for me. I think that Corelli and I are going to be really good friends.

It sounds like the book is going to be amusing in parts too. The fact that Corelli responds to a “Heil Hitler” with “Heil Puccini” is hilarious, in a dark and off-kilter way. That sort of joke (I’m deciding it’s a joke and if it’s not, I still find it amusing) fits perfectly with my sense of humor. Also, I know that Corelli and I are going to have a very good time together because I started reading it last night and I’m enjoying it so far. In fact, if I could, I’d be reading it right now.

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