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The German Guard

I am as many know obsessed with History and the World Wars are especially close to my heart, because, well simply because I do not understand how men and women could have been so cruel to their own kind and secondly, most importantly, I am sometimes scared, that we as a species never learn from our mistakes and we are going down the same path! This urge to read up on the subjects leads me down to various paths of Fiction and Non Fiction and sometimes, I find myself with a book, I would not usually venture to read, had it not been set on this premises so close to my heart!

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is one such novel. I have not seen the film, but I have heard rave reviews about both the novel and the film and both were highly recommended by many people whose opinion I respect. However I could not quite bring myself to read this one; the idea of sexual relations between a 15 and 36 year old, somehow seemed to have hints of pedophilia and even my broad, live and let live philosophy had trouble digesting! So I waited and procrastinated and then one Sunday afternoon, I found myself at lose ends, challenging myself to do something different and suddenly The Reader found me!

Set in the early years post World War II Germany, The Reader, traces the lives of Michael Berg, a lawyer and Hannah Schmitz, a former guard at Auschwitz. Micheal first meets Hannah, a streetcar conductor, when he is 15 and falls ill, near her house and she assists him with aid, before sending him back home. Once recovered, he goes to thank Hannah and they begin a relationship. One key aspect of the relationship is that Hannah expects Micheal to read to her, every time he visits. One day however, Hannah abruptly leaves town and Micheal is left with the guilt that it was his conduct that drove Hannah away! After a gap of several years, while attending a seminar that follows the trial of some of the former Nazi guards and soldiers, Michael meets Hannah again, only this time she is one of the accused, held responsible for the death of many Jewish woman and children, who died in a church fire where they were being held captive under the supervision of Hannah and several other women guards, when an allies bomb stuck the church trapping the women and children in a horrific fire, killing all most everyone. As the trial progresses, Micheal realizes that the evidence is circumstantial and a good lawyer, would have disposed off the whole thing in a couple of days. However, Hannah seemed to willfully volunteer information, that held her, more of the accused guards responsible for the death of those women and children and agree on matters that may not be wholly true. As the trial progresses, Micheal wonders about Hannah’s behavior and action, until stumbling on the secret that holds key to Hannah’s action and in protecting that secret, Hannah accepts all that is thrown her way, leading to unintended consequences!

Like I said, I was not comfortable with the premises of the book, because of which I held of on reading it for a long time. There is no denying that there is streak of eroticism that is there in the book, but as I rushed through its pages, I realized it so much more than that! The guilt of the war of the post war generation of Germans, comes searing through the pages, as Michael speaks for a whole generation, that could not believe that their parents were capable of the kind of brutality that Nazi Germany unleashed. Their struggle to ‘love and respect” the elders comes clashing with the historic reality of their elders and the struggle to somehow make peace or distance themselves from that past is heartbreaking! The burden of this generation with what to condemn and who to condemn and how to make sense of it all, is tragically and beautifully described by the author, capturing the pain, the guilt, the confusion and raging anger!Hannah’s secret that symbolizes the German population during the Nazi rule, is at the very heart of the book, that questions on how the common man could turn away from what was truly an abhorrence in the name of mankind and live to exist with it everyday! This sheer negligence of moral responsibility and how that generation tackled this, forms the very essence of this novel. Sensitively written, in some of the most heart rending prose, the book offers no apology for the Nazi Germany, but rather a bewilderment of how a nation and its people can go so wrong and its consequences that echo on the future generation. With a deep understanding of his country and the people, Schlink, wrote on what can only be called a masterpiece that makes us question our sense of morality and the option of “no alternative” that hides behind it the complete and utter failure of moral courage!

I did not love this book, but I was touched by it. It remained with me for a long time and I needed to distance myself from its overwhelming difficult questions, to write an objective review. It is not an easy read; I do not mean in terms of word count, but in terms of message it brings. But it fulfills the most important criterion of a novel, the ability to make the reader hold up a mirror to his or her face and question the most important principles of life! It is a book that needs to be read, if for no other reason, than simply because we need ensure that we do not commit the same mistakes as our predecessors!

Baking Breads and Tales in Wartime Germany

And now for The Baker’s Daughter

I know I was supposed to post this last week, but between one thing and the other….well, better late than never I guess!

The Baker’s Daughter is a novel by Sarah McCoy.

I had never read any of Sarah McCoy’s previous work and picked up this book solely because of three reasons –

– The back cover told me that it’s historical fiction set during the World War II

– The story for a change was from a perspective of a German and not an allied power and I already had a great impression of writings from the German perspective from books like The Book Thief and wanted to continue exploring this genre

– It seemed to blend in my other passion very well, i.e. cooking! (I mean it’s called The Baker’s Daughter!!!)

Goodreads tell me that Sarah McCoy is a daughter of an Army officer. She spent her early years in Germany and prior to writing books, she taught writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her first book was The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and The Baker’s Daughter was published in 2012.

The-Bakers-Daughter-JacketThe Baker’s Daughter is set towards the end of World War II in the small town of Garmisch, Germany. Its 1945 and Elsie Schmidt lives with her parents above the bakery run by her father. She is being courted by a very senior SS official and her sister is part of the The Lebensborn Program. It’s an all-German family, living and believing in the values set by The Fuhrer, believing in the ultimate destiny of a superior Germany with a Third Reich. However things change for Elsie and her family, when a young boy shows up at her door one night and she is forced to take a decision that will change her and her family’s fate. Parallelly, there is a modern-day story of Reba Adams who is in the lookout for a great Christmas story and bumps into a bakery. Reba Adams is a loner who wants to move out of her relationship with her boyfriend and the town of El Paso, Texas, to start a new life in San Francisco and distance herself from her half-truths and the memories of her past. As the novel progresses, the two tales collide and become one story of valor, humanity and the ability of a human spirit to survive!

Now for the book – it’s wonderful! I know this is like stating it right out there, but it is absolutely wonderful. Maybe because I read it right after The Shell Seekers, I felt the impact more. But I really really liked the novel and would seriously recommend it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the novel does not have flaws – there is the stereotypical sexually aggressive, pseudo masochist Nazi, who conveniently shows up to bring a twist to the tale. There is also at the other end of the Nazi spectrum, the tortured Nazi, who is trying to come to terms with his own harrowing deeds and then meets a very non original end. Towards the end of the novel, it seems like somehow, the author was in hurry to end the book, so she neatly packaged out what could have been a more meaty middle and epilogue of the book.  The writing is also very linear and sometimes too simplistic.

Having said all of this, I still say that this is a marvelous book! To begin with, in the character of Elsie Schmidt, the author has created a wonderful heroine, who is both human and yet capable of great kindness, even at personal costs. She is warm, intelligent and sometimes absolutely hilarious character, whose voice echoes through the book. Another wonderful character is Elsie’s mother, a strong resilient woman, who will stop at nothing to save her family. The book is filled with some interesting insights into Nazi Germany including The Lebensborn Program.  The Program, per Wikipedia, was a state-run program to boost the number of racially pure Aryan children, including those born of extra marital relations. Through the book, the author tries to give an authentic feel of a country at the brink of losing a war, struggling with shortages and poverty and death of thousands and thousands of her men. The reader has a very strong sense of a raging war and its impacts unlike the very superficial layering of it in The Shell Seekers. Lastly, the book has some wonderful description of food – especially German breads and other bakeries and some lovely detailing on how the bakers managed their supplies and kept the business going, as the country spiraled towards scarcity and poverty.

I know there are great many works written about Germany during World War II and of course this book does not stand in competition to such works like Schindler’s Ark, but it is great read and I recommend atleast one read!

World War II, Victorian Art…some highs and some lows

Recently I read two back to back works of historical fiction set during World War II. The period of 1900 1950 has always fascinated me and any work set in that era, predisposes me to like the book, even before I read it. It’s a kind of a blind spot with me. Therefore with some pleasant anticipation I set out to read –

Let me first tackle The Shell Seekers. Most of the circumstances were in favor and had me predisposed to really like this book – it seemed like one of those epic family saga, with a story interwoven between present and the World War II era, with a lot of emphasis on paintings and the Bohemian era of British artistry. Besides, it was in my Lecito List and is part of BBC Top 100- The Big Read, along with such noteworthy works like The Great Gatsby and Catch 22 etc. How could I not possibly like the book??

Well there is an old adage – never judge a book by its cover! I have invented a new one – never judge a book by reading its inlay cover: it’s completely misleading.

The Shell SeekersDon’t get me wrong, the book was all that the inlay cover claimed – it traces the life and times of the Keeling family as they plan to make their way in the world by selling the last remaining works of their grandfather – Lawerence Stern, a great Victorian artist, whose popularity was getting revived again. However standing between their grand ambitions and the works is their mother – Penelope Keeling, the only daughter of Lawerence Stern and the primary protagonist of the book. The book evolves through her memories, each chapter focusing on an important figure in her life, sweeping between past and present. The past takes the reader back to the bohemian childhood of hers and then through the war time romance and brings the reader back to present where she develops a strong bond with two young strangers over her avaricious children.  The book ends with Penelope’s death and the disclosure of her will which leaves her inheritors astounded.

The book has some absolutely marvelous description of Cornwall and like many before makes the reader go and settle there for good and never come back.  There are some very fine details of costumes and food of the bygone era. It’s an easy read and will not stress the reader out too much.

But that’s where all the good stuff of the book ends!

This book is singularly one of the most disappointing reads of my life. I started it off with such expectation, but it was a letdown. I am not sure how this book came to be termed as one of the big reads of all times!!

The novel had so much potential, simply because of the historical backdrop and the subject of Victorian paintings, but it all seemed wasted.  To begin with, the book had such a superficial narrative of World War II: the heroine joins the war effort because she is moved by the story of some Jewish refugees from Germany. But she promptly then meets a man, gets pregnant and marries him, only to discover, Alleluia, the marriage is a disaster! Her parents are supposed to be completely free-spirited and are ready to accept her and her unborn child, but she still goes ahead and marries this man, for no clear reason. Then of course, during the course of the war she has a clichéd love affair with the perfect man – a man who understands art and reads poetry and can play with her daughter and is a paragon of virtue! (Do such men really exist? Also would it not be boring to be constantly with a man who is so PERFECT!!!! Besides shouldn’t opposites attract?) Not only she has an affair, but the town seems to bless it and by then 18th page of this chapter, you know this affair is doomed and when you reach the end of the chapter – surprise surprise – it’s doomed!! She is supposed to be this strong independent character, but until she becomes an old woman, I do not see any independence in her – she is constantly dependent on her parents and friends! Then come her children who all are supposed to be greedy and materialistic, except one Olivia and she also does not seem completely human and is constantly reminding herself to be human! I mean Duh! The day I have to remind myself to be humane and kind, well then there is something wrong with mankind. Even the references to the Victorian arts are artificial and inconsequential – with such prodigious material available on the paintings of that time, a little more depth would have helped the book.

In the end, I do not think it’s a work to be handed down to posterity nor should it stand with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and War and Peace. It’s one of those novels that you read on a flight and leave it on the plane!

The only impressive thing was not related to the book, but the author – Rosamunde Pilcher. She had written since 1950’s in various Mills & Boon Romance publications, but it was at the age of 60 that she wrote The Shell Seekers and gained worldwide fame. It’s remarkable how she shed her comfort zone at a very late age in her life and of course the risk paid off – though I still do not like the book!

No review of mine can be short and I bid adieu on this blog with a faithful promise that I will inflict my readers again with my take on The Baker’s Daughter.

One girl, some books and Nazi Germany

New Year, New Books.

I recently read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Though this is not a new book per se, since it was originally published in 2005, but I read it just a couple of days ago and for me therefore it has all the joy of unchartered territory, especially since I had never read any work by Markus Zusak prior to this.

Markus Zusak is an Australian author who has written some great children’s work including The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry. Though he received several awards and recognitions for these works, his breakthrough came with the The Book Thief which was as I mentioned first published in 2005 and since then has been translated in 30 languages and garnered the #1 position in The New York Times Bestsellers.

Now about the book –

the-book-thiefThe Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II and it spans the years from 1939 -1944 in a town called Molching, Germany. The story’s narrator is Death (Yes! As in THE DEATH) and  begins as an eight year old Liesel Meminger is taken by her mother for adoption to a foster family – housepainter and accordion player Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa Hubermann, whose washing and ironing for the richer households. The story then describes Liesel’s relationship with her foster parents, other residents of the neighborhood including Rudy Steiner, who becomes her best friend and Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife and a Jewish fist fighter, who hides in Hubermann’s basement to escape the Nazis.

While the back cover synopsis may look very To Kill a Mocking Bird meet’s Schindler’s Ark, do not go with that kind of mindset, for this book is completely unexpected.  I do mean unexpected – it does cater to certain cliché’s like the German who does not want to be a Nazi or the German who risks his life to save a Jewish life, but that’s where the cliché’s end. This book is beautifully crafted, written with great depth and while the language is simple, since its attributed to a young girl, there is a lot of sensitivity and originality in the whole work. There are several instances of dry humor as well as some very upsetting moments, including one scene where I cried in buckets. (Yes! I do cry when I read books and no, I am not sentimental, just someone who is extremely sensitive!)  The plot is unusual not so much in the characters as much in the details and events of the tale. Another extremely rare aspect of the book is that at the very onset of each book (The novel is divided into 10 Books), the reader comes to know what will ensure in that book as well as the next, so in a way, the author gives away the ending, right at the beginning. However the power of the tale as well as the brilliant writing will keep the reader going despite knowing the obvious end.

New York Times wrote that “It’s the kind of book that can be LIFE CHANGING.” – I am not sure if it can be life changing, since we are all different people and we all react to things differently, but I can say this, that not to have read this is a loss and a big loss at that. This is a must read for all those who consider themselves books/novels/literature connoisseur, for this novel may be considered a  modern classic one day!!! It’s a poetic, touching and absolutely heartbreaking work that scopes out the immense generosity that humans posses.

Camaraderie in Weimar Republic

I had mentioned previously that I was reading a book called “Three Comrade” by Erich Maria Remarque and I finished it some time ago. After reading the book, I thought and thought for some time and decided it will be apt to write a note about it!

I am not going to start by praising or deriding it, but rather take a detour and talk about Erich Maria Remarque, before plunging into the work. (Have patience! Mr Remarque was a remarkable man of his time and its worth reading about such real life heroes as well.) We might have heard of Mr Remarque’s other more “popular’ book called “All quiet on the Western front”…..right it was also made into an Oscar winning film; but it was a book for a long while before it became a Hollywood magnum project. Anyhow, my trusted source (you got it: Wikipedia) informs me that Mr Remarque was born in Germany in 1898 and began writing from the age of 15. He was drafted into the German Army and served in the Western Front (Yup! You can finally make the “connection”….All Quiet on the Western Front was novel derived from his war experience!). Post the war, he dabbled in various occupations including teaching, journalist, librarian and a businessman. He published some minor works; fame finally came with his magnum opus “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1927. He would then go on to publish various other works, The Road Back, Arch of Triumph, Flotsam etc. and of course Three Comrades. Before divulging into the book, I just want to share one small nugget about his life which makes him a hero – he wrote in dangerous times – Nazis were gaining power in Germany. Mr Remarque, a true humanitarian was horrified at what Germany was becoming and went on a self-imposed exile to Switzerland and became a naturalized US citizen in 1947. While in exile in Switzerland, he was in turns coaxed and coerced into returning to Germany. When all means failed, his sister and her family were arrested and executed for ‘undermining morale” of the State and his book were banned. He never went back to Germany. He died in 1970.

Cover of "Three Comrades"

Cover of Three Comrades

Now for the book – Three Comrades. The tag line of the book says “A novel of Germany between the two wars”. In the simple direct style, that Mr Remarque is famous for, his tag line encapsulates the very essence and meaning of the novel in these lines. The story is told in first person by one of the three comrades – Robert Lohkamp, a cynical protagonist who has been disillusioned by his experience in World War 1. The story begins in about 1923 and ends with that decade. It traces the camaraderie between Robert and his two friends – Otto Koster and Gottfried Lenz and their struggle in running a garage in an increasing jobless and bankrupt country. Their lives change when Robert falls in love with Patricia Hollman, a beautiful girl from an erstwhile wealthy family. She too becomes a comrade and joins the three in all their adventures from auto racing to drinking parties through the night. Interlacing with these four principal characters are other minor but true portraits of everyday men and women struggling to find their hold on their lives in time and place they had no choice for – Rosa, the prostitute who leaves her baby in the country while she walks the roads, The Hasses, Alfonso, Gustav the taxi driver with a soft heart and of course Karl, one cannot forget Karl. The book’s end (I will not disclose) becomes obvious well into the middle, but hang on and read it and you will be surprised by an unexpected turn of events.

Ultimately, the book is a vivid portrayal of nation and her people who are trying to come in terms with changes in their lives on which they have no control over. Written in a simple direct language, it has some lovely interplay of words that leave you wondering, like ‘Two photographs – one life.” Simple, beautiful and ethereal! What is perhaps the most wonderful feature of this book is that though there is melancholia all round, Mr Remarque manages to weave a sense of wonderful laugh out loud humour – check out the racing scenes or the events at “The International” or even the doctrines of the “Last of the romantics”. It’s a moving tale, where if you are like me, a lump will form in your throat and will find its way through your eyes!! Read it, like you would enjoy a glass of wine…in fact read it with a glass of wine!! It’s worth it!

P.S. Hollywood also decided to make a movie on this and starring Robert Taylor and Margret Sullivan, it was released in 1938 in the same name. Rumour has it that the 1978 Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter was inspired by this book. I have not seen either….I have no wish to disappoint myself with a let-down which most films based on books are (except The Godfather, but then it’s The Godfather), but if you feel adventurous, please watch them, but I would strongly recommend reading the book first!!

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