Monday, May 30, 2016

The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman

This is a very interesting angle on the typical Holocaust story.  It is told entirely from the perspective of Christine, who is a young German Christian maid who falls in love with the wealthy, half Jewish son of her employers in the months immediately prior to World War II.  Initially she and her family are worried that the class differences will make a relationship between her and Isaac impossible, but with the rise of Hitler this becomes the least of their worries.

The book covers the entire war period.  We see how at first the laws prohibit Christine from working for Isaac's family, then prohibit any relationship between them.  Despite that they continue meeting secretly until even that becomes too risky.  And, of course, eventually Isaac's family is deported to Dachau.

Because of the perspective of this book we also see the impact of Nazism on ordinary German country people.  Christine's father is drafted into the army and sent to the Russian front - they hear from him only sporadically.  The family has barely enough food, and her mother nearly starves while trying to give what their is to her four children.  The family must spend many nights in a bomb shelter when Allied air strikes begin - and her grandfather does not survive one fire bombing.  Eventually her sister is also sent to the Russian front to assist soldiers and is severely damaged by the Russian "liberation".

Throughout it all Christine remains loyal to Isaac, eventually ending up in Dachau herself for her efforts to assist him.  And after the war she refuses to remain silent about what she witnessed and goes to the Americans to do her best to see the perpetrators punished.

The book is well written and easy to read despite its heavy subject matter.  I think it's a worthwhile book to read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

This book is subtitled - "nine lives in the world's largest refugee camp" - which clearly describes both the number of people the author followed for a period of several years; and the "nine lives" everyone in the camp seems to need to survive.

Rawlence, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa, made multiple visits over a span of years to Dadaab refugee camp in the northern Kenyan desert.  He must have spent countless hours interviewing and observing residents to put together this detailed and fascinating account of life in the camp.

Most of the residents of Dadaab are Somalis who have been fleeing both drought (and the attendant famine) and civil war since the early 90s.  However, there are also Sudanese, Ethiopians and those from a handful of other African countries who have escaped hardship there.  The camp was supposed to be a temporary solution but has grown into one of the largest "cities" in Kenya - those who leave to return home or for better lives in Nairobi, Europe, Australia or North America cannot make up for the birth rate or the constant influx of new refugees.

It is illuminating to see the ingenuity of the residents who have no official status in Kenya yet have developed a sophisticated black market economy, have been educated by the Kenyans and the UN in some cases and, against impossible odds, many remain hopeful.  Of course many do not and return to danger at home or in Nairobi or turn to suicide.

The book also manages to educate on the state of the Kenyan government - and the level of corruption involved in it as well as its tense relationship with Somalia even before al-Shabaab terrorists became an issue.

This is not an easy read but it is well written and the author manages to personalize the story through following several residents which makes it easier to digest a complicated tale of war, history and politics.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This book was just plain weird.  It was about a writer and one of the lessons she had been taught by a fictional writer/teacher is that "you only have one story".  Maybe Strout's one story was the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, because there sure wasn't much story in this one.

The basic premise is the narrator reflecting on several weeks she spent in the hospital as a young mother, when her mother, with whom she had very little contact as an adult, comes to spend 5 days at her bedside.  Their interactions are awkward with the unspoken reminisces of a poverty stricken and abuse filled childhood.  But we never really hear the extent of the abuse, or even whether it was just at the hands of her father or the mother was also involved.  We also hear a little about her adult siblings, including a brother who still lives at home and is likely gay but was shamed for it as a child so has not come out.

We also learn a little of the narrator's troubled marriage (which ends a few years after the hospital stay) and the strain her separation places on her relationship with her daughters.

I guess we are meant to learn about the nature of troubled human relationships and how the shape adulthood, but mostly I was bored and kept reading on to see if eventually anything would happen.  It didn't.

Monday, May 2, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This is the second autobiography that I've read in a row and this one was completely different in some ways - here terminal illness was the enemy rather than an autocratic state.  Yet, it was similar in that it showed the absolute strength of the human spirit when it is most severely challenged.

Paul Kalanithi, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2015, was a brilliant neurosurgeon/neuroscientist who was just about to complete his specialty when he was struck by the cancer.  Prior to medical school he had studied English literature and the history and philosophy of science and medicine so had also dreamed of eventually writing a book.  He was originally moved to study the brain in order to understand how something as complex and language and communication could be physically explained.  With his patients he was always fascinated by the process of dying and how the patient and the families came to terms with it.

So, when faced with his own mortality he set out to write a book that would document his dying process and serve as a guide for others facing the same circumstances (which he recognized is everyone at some point - they just don't always know when).  Personally, not being that philosophical, I found myself skimming some of the more esoteric sections, but I was fascinated by Kalanithi's personal story.  I also enjoyed how he wove in applicable passages from literature.  The epilogue by Kalanithi's wife, which outlines his last few days and his literal deathbed request that his family see his book through to publication, was also extremely moving.

At times depressing, at other times hopeful, this was a very interesting read by someone with a perspective that we don't often get to share.  This is not an easy read and I don't recommend it for mere entertainment, but it does contain some insights that are helpful, if not pleasant, to share.