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review 2016-09-21 20:07
The Gifts of the Jews (Hinges of History #2)
The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels - Thomas Cahill

The moment, or hinge, in history that a changed occurred to allow Western civilization possible is the primary focus of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews.  Over the course of less than 304 pages and the scope of two millennia of Jewish history from its birth with Abraham to their return from exile, Cahill examines the evolving birth of a new worldview that was entirely different from what had been thought before.


The focus of Cahill’s book is the beginning of Western civilization, which to him is a change in mindset on how to view the world and the reason was the Jews.  Before getting to Abraham however, Cahill looked to what had come before, the “cyclical” worldview and culture of Sumer in which he went out of.  With this in mind, Cahill emphasizes how big a step Abraham’s journey at God’s direction was.  Then throughout the course of the book, Cahill examines step-by-step the development of the “processive” worldview that the Jews were exhibiting for the first time from successive revelations of God and the development of individuality in language and philosophy, but most importantly the role of justice in society.


Cahill’s argument is very compelling, as was his discussions on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the various Biblical individuals and their actions.  Yet the problem I have with this book is with some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis.  For example some of the evidence Cahill uses to date the Exodus is erroneous by misinterpretation of both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, yet that is only of several examples I could have given.


Yet while Cahill’s interpretations aren’t the best part of this book, his argument that the Jews brought forth a new worldview that would lead to Western civilization is compelling.  Because of that, The Gifts of the Jews is worth a close read as it describes the first and most significant hinge of historical change.

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review 2015-10-13 19:19
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

This is an exceptional story that explores the history of an ancient illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. When the novel opened with a scene in 1996 Sarajevo, I wondered if it was going to be a good choice for me, but that was just the beginning of an amazing journey through centuries of struggle, war, and fate that brought this unique book into the hands of modern book restoration specialist Hanna Heath.


Heath is the central character, connecting to the others by the evidence she finds in the Haggadah. As she investigates a stain or researches the source of an insect wing, the story of another lifetime is revealed. The travels of the book demonstrate how amazing it is that it still exists while documenting the trials and suffering that humankind has caused each other to suffer.


Each person who has contact with the Haggadah is impacted by it and has a part in ensuring its future. People of diverse faiths and backgrounds are eloquently brought together in heartbreaking stories that far too many people lived through. Examples of slavery, inquisition, torture, disinheritance, and, of course, the Holocaust.....one finishes this book wondering how we could keep doing this to one another.


Another hit from Brooks. She does not disappoint.


I have to mention that I listened to this as an audio book. That was probably not the best format to choose with the multitude of characters, locations, and timelines. However, the narrator did an impressive job of using different accents for the wide variety of nationalities represented. I learned that Americans (I include myself) have the least musical speech patterns in the world. It almost hurt my ears to hear the American characters after the others, including the main character's Australian accent.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-12-23 15:16
Rutu Modan’s The Property (2013): translated by Jessica Cohen
The Property - Rutu Modan,Jessica Cohen

“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina. You came to tell me that our son is dead.”


This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Ruth Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property. I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel. It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers. Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII. This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances. Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now).


Once in Poland, Regina tries to steal away to meet Roman, her forgotten lover, while Mica decides to find the property herself. During her travels she meets Tomasz, a Ukranian artist/tour guide who conducts her through the city and becomes attracted to her—or perhaps her grandmother’s history.   Mica soon learns that Tomasz is sketching a comic of every story and character from Mica’s life, details she finds unbearably private. Rejecting him, she goes off on her own, mistakenly believing that the “property” is actually the current site of the Warsaw Hilton, which will make her family rich. Her search is complicated by the presence of Avram, her aunt’s fiance, who fears that Mica will get her hands on the property first. By dogging her steps throughout every frame of the comic, he learns of the true property and the man who owns it, and bribes him not to speak to Mica or her grandmother. Roman, meanwhile, is slowly piecing things together himself, and realizes that Regina bore him a son in Palestine, a boy he never met, who recently died of cancer. This, and not the property, is what finally prompted her to come to Poland and confront her past.


The novel ends with the Polish festival of Zaduski, the so-called day of the dead, where the entire city flocks to cemeteries to light candles and pay respects to the departed. Amidst the light and shadow of the festival (beautifully rendered by Modan’s artwork), Regina and Roman reconcile and share memories, Mica learns to trust Tomasz’s motives, and even Avram learns the truth about the property: that Regina’s parents sold it to Roman before the war to save it from Nazi possession. In the final pages, Mica learns that Roman is her grandfather, and her grandmother’s past wasn’t quite as buried as either of them thought. In short, the book lights its own candle for the past, showing the healing process which often takes decades and is sometimes attempted too late.

Of course, any summary of the story is flawed without appreciation of Modan’s artwork, which is the true voice of the narrative. The colors are light yet crisp, reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century Russian artist Bilibin, who sumptuously illustrated so many Russian fairytales. This gives the characters an almost cartoon-like characterization, which is belied by how realistically they move, express themselves, and interact with each other. According to the back of the book, each character had an “actor,” suggesting that she closely modeled the poses and expressions on real life. This shows in the book, which for all its stylization, gives us a “fly on the wall” approach—one of utter intimacy, almost like a documentary. Also, unlike some graphic novels, for which the setting is a mere hazy outline, place really matters: Warsaw emerges clearly in these pages, giving us a sense of its sights, sounds, and even smells. The cemetery scene, as discussed earlier, is most vividly evoked, as the characters piece together the past surrounded by a halo of red,

orange, and blue lights.


The Property is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in some time, and deserves mention with other family narratives such as Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets. Check out of my review of her other novel, Exit Wounds, on my comics website: http://grassocomics.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-comic-response-template-modans-exit.html

Source: hblackbeard.blogspot.com
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review 2014-10-04 23:00
The Luck of the Weissensteiners - Christoph Fischer

Christoph Fischer has written an important historical rendition of wartime Eastern Europe that will continue to haunt you for a long time after you finish reading it. The Luck of the Weissensteiners presents the spirit and horrific social conditions of Bratislava and the neighbouring countries during the Holocaust. The actual political figures of that era are embedded in the story but the slew of other characters are all strong fictional creations that give life and credibility to the historical backdrop.
It is a touching story of courage, love and heroic endurance in a time of abject cruelty and terror. War has the knack of bringing out either the best or the worse of the human psyche--both extremes are equally depicted in the novel. 
The players in this drama are far from being two-dimensional; even the cold, unfeeling characters will at times show a glimmer of warmth. Greta and her Jewish family remain loyal to their compassionate and trusting nature throughout their terrifying ordeal. Her fate is sealed when she falls in love with Wilhelm, a charming German bookseller whose true colours as a calculating anti-Semite are revealed when the going gets tough.
Be prepared for emotional upheaval while reading this-- you cannot remain untouched.

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review 2013-11-13 03:15
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief - Trudy White,Markus Zusak

They're strange, those wars.

Full of blood and violence -- but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. "It's true," people will mutter. "I don't care if you don't believe me. It was that fox who saved my life," or, "They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?"

- The Book Thief

p. 174



The Book Thief is about a ten-year-old German girl who is placed in foster care in the town of Molching, near Munich, during World War II. While in foster care, her foster father teaches her how to read and write after finding out she stole a book. The novel follows her through her time in Molching, from 1939-1943.


Zusak gives us the story of an ethnic German girl rather than a Jewish girl. He figures we've read enough stories about the suffering of Jewish people during the Second World War, and he might be right, I don't know. It is a nice refresher, though, to have a story about the so-called "enemy". I know that many Germans looted the homes of Jewish people once they'd been taken and that no one really did anything to stop the Nazi Party. We can all kind of look back on that time in history as citizens of the Digital Age and wonder how no one could have stopped them. But that's looking for an answer that human psyches can't really provide. We've seen the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment and the Bystander Effect, and guess what? People like to say that they'd do more in retrospect but no one would. Is that depressing? Maybe, but it's true.


So what does this have to do with The Book Thief? Our protagonist, Liesel Meminger, is both the bystander and the one to intervene. (She doesn't really have anything to do with either SPE or the Milgram Experiment, but those are important for the events of WWII and more, so they are relevant.) Liesel, like so many other German characters that we get in this book, stands by as the Nazi soldiers parade the Jewish prisoners through their town to Dachau. Unlike so many others, Liesel actually grows as a character and as a person so that we can see her shrug off the apathy and actually engage, much like her foster father, Hans Hubermann.


I just think that this novel works well and on so many levels: showing us "ordinary" lives of the civilian Germans, that despite being the aggressors they are still regular people with lives and they're just trying to get by on the tail-end of the Great Depression; bringing a reminder that there were German citizens who hid Jewish people from the Nazis; and putting a spotlight on how war devastates. And I can't forget the bibliophilia that is present throughout!


However, I did find so many issues with the writing that this book could never make it to five stars. The novel is narrated by Death, which is fine and all that, but his own philosophical pondering and



There is something that

I (Death) find interesting

in this little blurb.

You as a reader

might not.


really broke up the flow.


There were also parts where I sincerely thought the copyeditor had fallen asleep. Just look at the quotation I used for the beginning of this review: "It was that fox who saved my life" (emphasis mine) -- "who" is only used for people, never animals. Maybe it's the grammarian in me, but that's just not correct usage; and maybe it's the linguist in me, but I've never heard or seen someone use "who" in that manner (until now, clearly). The most common way is to use "that". There are other instances where the verbs didn't match with its antecedent, logically. I would love to just say, "Poetic language! Metaphor!" but that's not how it works. When I have to take a some time to actually decipher what you're trying to say and it's not an actual poem, then we have a problem.


Besides the writing issues I had, I found the rest of The Book Thief to be quite enjoyable and heart-tugging. I think Zusak created some lovely characters (most notably, Rudy Steiner, Hans Hubermann and Ilsa Hermann), even if I think some of them do fall flat. I also think that Zusak manages to keep you interested despite going through four years of Nazi Germany and not much happening. He can really write childhood scenes.


Almost certainly not the best fiction that I've read on the Holocaust or World War II, but still worth the read and enjoyable. I especially recommend it if you are already a fan of Zusak's.

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