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review 2018-04-14 01:29
The Complete Maus (25th Anniversary Ed.) by Art Spiegelman | Holocaust Remembrance Week
The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Inspired by the Holocaust experience of his own parents, cartoonist Art Spiegelman writes and illustrates this Pulitzer Prize wining story of a grown son, also a cartoonist (yes, this one is in the meta / semi-autobio style) who sits down with his father, Vladek  Spiegelman, to record Vladek's story with the intent to publish it. Perhaps to soften some of the more violent aspects of Vladek's story, the tale is told anthropomorphically-- Nazi soldiers are portrayed as big, burly cats, Jewish prisoners are mice, and one African-American man is illustrated as a black dog. 

 

 

Vladek starts with the story of meeting his wife, Anja, and their years together as newlyweds prior to the war. In 1938, Anja develops post-partum depression and is taken to a sanitarium in Czechoslovakia where she experiences, for the first time, full-force anti-Semitism. From there, the war story of Anja and Vladek only gets more painful. Even Anja's millionaire parents couldn't buy her safety. Once captured, Vladek explains that he was able to get some leniency with the Germans because even though his family was Polish, he could speak and write in German, so the Nazis found him useful. 

 

This special anniversary edition features the entire story, Vols 1 & 2, together in one book. As I mentioned before, the story does dip in and out of meta style storytelling. Towards the middle of the book, there is a kind of mini-comic insert where author Art Spiegelman tells the real life tragic story of his own mother's suicide. This book as a whole is not for the faint of heart. There are illustrations of mice with nooses around their necks, descriptions of children being picked up by their legs and swung into brick walls to stop them from crying / screaming (the noise giving away the location of those in hiding). Near the end of Vol. 2 there is also pretty detailed description of the interiors of the gas chambers. This edition also features one color map (the rest of the book is done in black and white) that shows the full layout of the Auschwitz camp. 

 

 

 

Blended with the Holocaust theme, Spiegelman also brings in a modern day father-son relationship story of a grown man honestly trying to make the effort to finally, hopefully, understand the father who has always slightly confounded him. There are some tense life truths brought to the table during these scenes but it provided a relatable, poignant layer to the whole experience that I came to really appreciate. 

 

If you're now reading this thinking, "Man, there is no way I could get through anything that dark," Spiegelman might have had such readers in mind because he does offer moments of levity as well. There's the somewhat scary but also creepy-humorous story of Lucia, the woman who went Stage 5 Clinger on Vladek when he became interested in someone else.

 

 

 

 

Old man Vladek is also dad-funny during his conversations with his son, saying things like "famous like that one guy".... I don't know though, there were a few moments there where old Vladek was coming off as pretty strongly racist himself... so it left me with mixed feelings about him. 

 

I'm glad I finally took the opportunity to experience this epic graphic novel I've heard so much about over the years. The story is a tough one to take, but important to hear. Truthfully though, I'm not sure it's one I see myself revisiting, at least not any time soon. 

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review 2018-04-13 09:32
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
Number the Stars - Lois Lowry

As the German troops begin their campaign to "relocate" all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war. Winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Best friends Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen are living in Denmark in 1943 when the anti-Semitism of WW2 takes hold of their community. Fearing the Germans may capture Ellen, whose family is Jewish, the decision is made for Ellen to move in with Annemarie's family (not Jewish) and pose as one of their daughters.

 

Inspired by the experiences of her real-life friend Annelise Pratt, Lowry writes Number The Stars in a simple and succint, easy to understand style, but the story here will still pack quite the punch for middle-grade readers, I'm sure. Mixed in with Annemarie and Ellen's quiet story of survival are historical sidenotes that will give readers perspective, such as the story of King Christian X, the Danish Jews smuggled into Sweden, and the importance of a handkerchief. There's also the little bit of heartbreak that is the scene of the Danish Navy blowing up their own naval yard before the Germans can get to it. When Annemarie's family hears the noise, which scares Annemarie's younger sister, Kirsti, the mother just calmly tells her that those are fireworks for Kirsti's 5th birthday. 

 

This being a WW2 historical fiction novel involving the Holocaust, it's no surprise there is mention of violence and even executions. Still, there is a small cord of hope that runs through even the more sad portions of the story. Being of Danish heritage myself, it was also interesting to see the role the Danes played in this part of history, a story I knew next to nothing about! 

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review 2018-04-13 08:14
The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
The Devil's Arithmetic - Jane Yolen,Steve Cieslawski

Hannah dreads going to her family's Passover Seder—she's tired of hearing her relatives talk about the past. But when she opens the front door to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she's transported to a Polish village in the year 1942. Why is she there, and who is this "Chaya" that everyone seems to think she is? Just as she begins to unravel the mystery, Nazi soldiers come to take everyone in the village away. And only Hannah knows the unspeakable horrors that await.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Hannah is twelve, almost thirteen, and by now is very much bored with the tradition of going to her grandmother's house for Passover Seder every year. Every year, someone in the family is chosen to go to the front door and symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah in. This year, Hannah is chosen. She grudgingly drags herself to the door and as soon as she opens it she is immediately thrown back in time to 1942 Poland. 

 

Everyone Hannah sees seems to recognize her, but she's surprised to hear they keep calling her "Chaya", her Hebrew name in honor of her Aunt Eva's deceased friend. Hannah understandably feels incredibly lost and out of place, which becomes evident to others with her behavior, but they chalk up "Chaya's" sudden strange ways to her having recently lost both her parents to a cholera epidemic that apparently also very nearly killed her. 

 

Hannah doesn't immediately consider the possibility that she has time-traveled. Rather, she assumes it's a well orchestrated joke her family has carried out... or maybe a dream? It's not until someone uses a phrase Hannah's only ever known her grandfather to use that she starts to suspect the truth of her new reality. When it dawns on her just what this means, she tries to warn others of what their future holds, based on what she's learned so far in her own time period, but no one believes such premonitions of evil could be even remotely possible. Not until it's too late and the wheels of what is to be history are in motion. 

 

Originally published in 1988, this story now reads dated in certain parts. There's mention of shows like General Hospital and movies like Yentl and Conan The Barbarian (btw -- spoilers in this book for the movie Yentl and the novel Little Women). That said, this story still holds up well when it comes to its themes of family bonds and the importance of educating oneself so as not to have horrible history repeated. Yolen's novel illustrates how a sense of community can develop in even the most hellish conditions, how vital that community becomes in terms of mental and physical survival. A reader can't help but be moved by how these characters cling to hope and faith to keep alive, the stolen moments of laughter when you know death is possibly imminent. 

 

Hannah's realization of what her journey truly means, the epiphany she has near the end of the story, brought an honest tear to my eye... that final act of selflessness, the understanding she finally had of all her grandmother had endured.

 

At the end of the book, Yolen writes an afterword entitled "What Is True About This Book" where she breaks down the facts that inspired the story and what portions came directly from her imagination. If you want an enhanced experience of this book, I would recommend the movie adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst. It appears a little low-budget in the beginning, but ends up being a nicely done translation of this work. 

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review 2018-04-13 04:08
Escape In Time by Ronit Lowenstein-Malz | Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 12th)
Escape in Time: Miri's riveting tale of her family's survival during World War II - Ronit Lowenstein-Malz,Laurie McGaw

Nessya’s grandmother, Miri Eneman Malz, has friends, a loving family—and a secret: she is a Holocaust survivor. When twelve-year-old Nessya learns the truth, she wants to know what happened. After decades of silence, Grandma Miri decides it’s time to tell her story. It all begins one terrible day in the spring of 1944, when Germany crosses Hungary’s border and soldiers arrive in Miri’s hometown of Munkács. Suddenly, the Jews are trapped and in danger. Surrounded by war and unimaginable hatred, the family makes a daring escape. But that is only the beginning, and over the course of the year new threats continually confront them. Incredibly, despite numerous close calls, they defy the odds and live. Based upon actual memoirs, this is the story of the Eneman family . . . of their remarkable ingenuity, astonishing luck, boundless courage, and unending love.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNINGThis novel does touch upon the topic of suicide. 

 

Nessya is twelve years old when her Hungarian grandmother, Miri, reluctantly begins to share the darkest details of her Holocaust experience. Miri decides to write it all down, as she feels it will be easier to get the story out that way than if she were to speak the memories aloud.

 

"I wrote down the story of our family," Grandma said. "It is the story of the survival of two parents and their four daughters. One of the daughters, the youngest, was twelve years old when it all began. That girl is me. The world was at war, so instead of playing and learning, we were busy escaping and hiding. During this time, we quietly celebrated my thirteenth birthday. And while I had nothing to unwrap that year, no ribbons to untie, I received the most beautiful gift I could wish for: Life."

 

 

Through Miri's story, the reader is given specific details on how individuals and families were treated within the concentration camps. Such details covered:

 

> Mandatory curfews within Jewish communities prior to residents being forced to move to the camps; also business licenses of Jewish owners being revoked, removing the business owners' ability to provide for their families. There are descriptions within this book of some families being forced to cut up a dead horse to keep from starving to death themselves.

 

> Families were driven out of nice, clean communities into cramped, dirty ghettos. Miri's family was living with 4 other families in a one bedroom apartment in one such ghetto! 

 

> While still residing in their towns, Jewish residents were forced to wear circular yellow patches signifying that they were Jewish. These were the precursors to the yellow stars Jewish people were forced to wear in the camps. 

 

> Miri describes the children in her village learning how to speak in code from an early age, as well as learning to decifer coded letters from family during the war. In her story, she explains that there was a false sense of security that came with being educated and behaving cooperatively with the Nazi soldiers. You never knew who they were going to turn on. Miri's own father, Apu (aka Naftuli), was considered a doomsday-ish worrywart type with his gloomy prophecies about the Nazis, until his predictions started coming true. 

 

I was, naturally, distressed by our chance in circumstances. Most of my belongings had been left at home, including my schoolbooks. I was, however, able to bring my geography text and a slim volume of some of Shakespeare's plays. Anyu had told me when she slipped them into my suitcase that with these books I'd always have the world in my hands and poetry in my heart. 

 

Miri's tale also gives reader an idea of the lengths Jewish citizens had to go to to escape German capture: the complex escape plots; creating fake transportation / documentation papers, relocating and living under new names altogether; families sometimes forced to split up (maybe forever) as a matter of survival. As Nessya reads of the tension, anxiety and uncertainty swirling around her grandmother's fate, the reader feels Nessya's emotions right along with her. The author also works in an important idea at this point: It's easy to judge the past actions of our relatives / ancestors (and possibly how those choices affected later behavior) from the comfort of present day.  Lowenstein-Malz illustrates this nicely with the description of Nessya reading her grandmother's words and feeling utterly heartbroken for her... but Nessya is reading these words sitting outside in the sun with a nice glass of iced tea and a plate of cookies.

 

This novel has a bit of a slow beginning, and while the book in its entirety is very short (less than 200 pages), there were passages that dragged a bit, sometimes reading more like a textbook than a novel. But the story does pick up and soon enough you are very much in Miri's world getting quite the education on this time period. The storytelling is enhanced by lovely pencil sketch illustrations done by Laurie McGaw. 

 

 

Translated from the original Hebrew by Leora Frankel, this novel was first published in Tel Aviv, Israel in 2006 under the title A Miracle of Love. In 2008, it was awarded the Yad Vashem Prize for Children's Holocaust Literature. The English translation provides a handy pronunciation guide for the some of the Hebrew vocabulary and Jewish cities mentioned throughout the novel, but there were a few lines here and there where the English grammar still seemed just slightly off.

 

FTC Disclaimer:  MB Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2016-10-18 10:30
The Witnesses by Robert Whitlow
The Witnesses - Robert Whitlow

Young lawyer Parker House is on the rise—until his grandfather’s mysterious past puts both of their lives in danger. Parker House’s secret inheritance is either his greatest blessing . . . or his deadliest curse. The fresh-faced North Carolina attorney shares his German grandfather’s uncanny ability to see future events in his mind’s eye—a gift that has haunted 82-year-old Frank House through decades of trying to erase a murderous wartime past. While Parker navigates the intrigue and politics of small-town courtroom law, Frank is forced to face his darkest regrets. Then, a big career break for Parker collides with a new love he longs to nurture and the nightmares his grandfather can no longer escape. Sudden peril threatens to shatter not only Parker’s legal prospects but also his life and the lives of those dearest to him. Two witnesses, two paths, an uncertain future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

Parker House is a North Carolina lawyer whose career seems to be on a steady climb to the top. Living nearby is Parker's German grandfather, 82 year old Frank House, previously Franz Haus.  Frank served as an officer with the German Army during World War 2. During those years, Frank's superiors discover he has quite the talent for having accurate visions of the future. So accurate that he earns the nickname "The Aryan Eagle".  The general Frank answers to keeps him nearby, adjusting the army's battle strategies accordingly. When Frank gets word that his parents and sibling have all been killed in a random bombing in Dresden, he makes the choice to desert his position and flee to Switzerland, spending some months there before making his way to the United States to settle in North Carolina's Outer Banks area. 

 

Decades pass, Frank is married and widowed, watches his children and grandchildren grow up, thinking all these years that maybe just maybe he's managed to live a life of relative peace. But as life sometimes goes, just as he lets a little bit of that guard down, in walks in that blast from the past. A man by the name of Mr. Mueller appears at the office of Parker, looking for a "Hauptmann Haus". Reluctantly, Frank agrees to a meeting with Mueller who comes to tell Frank a story about how "Hauptmann Haus" gave him some advice that ended up saving his life. Pretty early on, it's made clear that Frank struggles with a mountain of guilt regarding his involvement in war crimes. After hearing Mueller's story, Frank gives a terse kind of "well, you're welcome" to try to wrap up the topic and send the guy on his way but the reader will soon see the business between Mueller and Haus / House is far from done.  

 

Along with Frank's struggle with guilt, the reader also gets the sense that he may cling to some sense of comfort or familiarity in that pain, for years choosing to nurse the guilt rather than pursue any sort of forgiveness. Given time though, and with a little helpful nudge from his best friend Lenny, Frank does gradually find his way to a path of emotional peace & salvation. Meanwhile, grandson Parker also has his own experiences with the past revisiting him. As a child, Parker lost both his parents in a car crash when their car was struck by a drunk driver. Now, adult Parker finds himself brought in on two DUI / wrongful death cases that lead him to revisit those buried emotions. To complicate matters, in one case he is asked to defend a woman, a friend of one of the firm's partners, who was charged with a DUI with her 8 year old daughter in the backseat; in another case, Parker finds himself drawn to an attractive blonde woman who turns out to be none other than the daughter of a local bigwig trial lawyer that happens to be super protective of his girl.

 

Frank's portion of the novel is largely made up of pretty grim historical fiction (we're talking about WW2 after all). In his elderly years, when he begins to look into the idea of allowing self-forgiveness, his story turns much more heavily biblically influenced. Parker's portion does have some religious themes as well but to a much lesser degree. 

 

I felt myself most drawn to Frank's parts of the story. While Parker and his lady friend Layla were entertaining enough, Frank's tale kept me the most engaged throughout the novel. Though his part gets a bit heavy, I couldn't help but be pulled into that World War 2 timeframe. As for being a courtroom drama though, I didn't find this novel terribly exciting. If you're hoping to go into this story for high intensity courtroom brawls, I found this one lacking on that front. Most of the "action" is made up of pre-trial interviews and discussions about filing paperwork. I don't work in law but I suspect that in reality much of a day's work is made up of the mundane, but when it comes to fictionalizing it, a reader tends to want the nitty gritty heated courtroom battles.  

 

Also, those two storylines -- the present mixed with the WW2 flashbacks -- for me, until I got to the closing chapters of the novel I felt like the ties between Parker's past and struggles and Frank's were pretty tenuous. I was also a bit confused with the premonition "gift", as it was often referred to... I didn't see it in Parker as much. The back cover synopsis says that Parker seems to have gotten his gift passed down from Frank but with both of them I felt like Whitlow didn't quite go far enough with the idea. Rather than something mystical, magical, etc. ... to me, it really just felt like people working off of a basic gut instinct. Umm, pretty much everyone has that "gift" if they're just even remotely in tune with their mind / body connection. No big mystery, really. So I thought that aspect could've been played up a lot more. 

 

Final verdict -- courtroom / legal drama just so-so for me. What kept me reading was Frank's history as well as the friendship and banter between him and his fishing buddy, Lenny. I thought Lenny seemed like a pretty cool guy. The front cover of this book claims this is great for fans of John Grisham novels. Fair enough. I can back that, but I still find this one secondary to any Grisham I've delved into ... so maybe check it out when you've gone through all of Grisham's catalogue and need something more of the genre. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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