REVIEW: Day by Elie Wiesel

dayFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396714
Published:  1962 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The publication of Day restores Elie Wiesel’s original title to the novel initially published in English as The Accident and clearly establishes it as the powerful conclusion to the author’s classic trilogy of Holocaust literature, which includes his memoir Night and novel Dawn. “In Night it is the ‘I’ who speaks,” writes Wiesel. “In the other two, it is the ‘I’ who listens and questions.” In its opening paragraphs, a successful journalist and Holocaust survivor steps off a New York City curb and into the path of an oncoming taxi. Consequently, most of Wiesel’s masterful portrayal of one man’s exploration of the historical tragedy that befell him, his family, and his people transpires in the thoughts, daydreams, and memories of the novel’s narrator. Torn between choosing life or death, Day again and again returns to the guiding questions that inform Wiesel’s trilogy: the meaning and worth of surviving the annihilation of a race, the effects of the Holocaust upon the modern character of the Jewish people, and the loss of one’s religious faith in the face of mass murder and human extermination.

My Thoughts:

This is an exceptionally written book, as all three of Wiesel’s holocaust trilogy books are, but it is my least favorite of the three. I found this surprising, as I anticipated liking it more than Dawn, precisely because he returned to himself as main character, even though it is a fictional story. Harrowing is a good descriptor of this book, and though Night is equally so, I found Wiesel’s character in Day utterly incomprehensible in his seeming inability to love and be loved. He survived the Holocaust, and as much as he seemed to be trying to make sense of what it had done to him, I kept feeling like he had in many ways become like his persecutors – so much so that years after the fact he was more hardened, more hurtful, and utterly disinterested in living. After SURVIVING such incredible atrocity, I had a really difficult time coming to terms with his complete lack of interest in LIVING. It’s as if, in the end, Hitler & the Nazis won anyway, because they destroyed his soul. That is indescribably sad to me.

Advertisements

REVIEW: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

dawnFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396722
Published:  1961 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Elisha is a young Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, and an Israeli freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine; John Dawson is the captured English officer he will murder at dawn in retribution for the British execution of a fellow freedom fighter. The night-long wait for morning and death provides Dawn, Elie Wiesel’s ever more timely novel, with its harrowingly taut, hour-by-hour narrative. Caught between the manifold horrors of the past and the troubling dilemmas of the present, Elisha wrestles with guilt, ghosts, and ultimately God as he waits for the appointed hour and his act of assassination. Dawn is an eloquent meditation on the compromises, justifications, and sacrifices that human beings make when they murder other human beings.

My Thoughts:

I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word to describe the reading of Holocaust literature. I appreciate it deeply. I am continually amazed at the fortitude and resilience of those who survived the Holocaust. I admire Wiesel’s ability to put his thoughts into words in a way that touches people, first with his memoir Night, and then with this novel.

Wiesel’s words are spare, his thought processes complex, and as he weaves this tale of a Holocaust survivor – an 18 year old boy – who is now part of the Palestinian resistance, and who has been tasked with assassinating a hostage in response to the assassination (by the English) of fellow freedom fighter, I am wrestling right along with him, trying to make sense of how it can be acceptable to commit this murder, while still being absolutely horrified by Hitler and his Final Solution. Certainly one is on a massive scale, which makes it much more horrific, but it started with one person. One murder. Even if the cause is a good one – and truly, the Israelis were (and are) fighting for the survival of their homeland – the moral implications of committing murder because someone else murdered one of yours is something Elisha struggles with…and we, the readers, struggle with him. It is a true moral dilemma, and one with no easy answer.

Most interesting is that Wiesel does not answer the question…at least, not at the end. I’ll come back to this point. The book ends as it does without Elisha or the reader reaching a conclusion on the morality of the task before him. Or perhaps it is only Elisha. I love the ambiguity that Wiesel leaves here, as it mirrors life in so many ways, including the times when we are tasked with doing something (necessary), that is nevertheless morally repugnant to us. What will we decide? Do we do what we believe is right, and damn the consequences? Do we complete the task before us and learn to live with our consciences?

Elisha wrestled with whether or not the job before him would turn him into “one of them.” IF you catch it, the answer is foreshadowed early in the book with this passage: “Why has a man no right to commit murder? Because in so doing he takes upon himself the function of God. And this must not be done too easily. Well, I said to myself, if in order to change the course of our history we have to become God, we shall become him.” This is as clear an answer as there is, and yet Wiesel puts it early in the book, as an unrelated conversation. Very artfully done, and as a reader I appreciate being stretched to think more deeply, and in a more personal way, about where we ourselves may be trying to take on the function of God.

REVIEW: A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage by Mark Twain

a murder a mystery and a marriageFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  Classic Lit
ISBN:  0-393-32449-4
Published:  1876 / 2001 (this illustrated edition)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Nothing could be more remarkable than the astonishing appearance, 125 years after it was first written, of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage.  Mark Twain’s delightful rendition of life (and a disturbing death) in the mythical hamlet of Deer Lick, Missouri.  Twain’s story chronicles the fortunes of a humble farmer, John Gray, determined to marry off his daughter to the scion of the town’s wealthiest family.  But the sudden appearance of a stranger found lying unconscious in the snow not only derails Gray’s plans but also leads to a mysterious murder whose solution lies at the heart of this captivating story.

My Thoughts:

Definitely a quintessential Twain story! I enjoyed it, although I found it quite predictable. It’s hard to say if that’s because I’ve read a lot of Twain, or I’ve read a lot of stories with this formula, or it wasn’t Twain at his best. Whatever the reason, it was easy to predict, with perhaps the exception of the Jules Verne connection.

That, of course, brings me to the bonus, which added greatly to the story. Roy Blount Jr. wrote both a forward and an afterward for this story. It is the afterward that is of particular note, as it gives some historical context to what was going on with Twain at this point in his writing career. It’s been a very long time since I studied Twain or Howells (over 20 years ago, in college), and while Blount’s afterward was doubtless nothing new to many Twain aficionados, it did pair well with the story and gave it more depth.

I am also reminded, in reading this story, how much I love Twain’s writing. One of my long-term goals has been to read his entire body of work, and this reminds me that he needs to be (again) a regular part of my reading life.

REVIEW: Night by Elie Wiesel

NightFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit
ISBN:  1419390694
Published:  1958 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Though technically a novel, Night is also an unmistakably autobiographical depiction of the author’s own gruesome experiences in Nazi Germany’s death camps. Told through the eyes of 14-year-old Eliezer, the tragic fate of the Jews from the little town of Sighet unfolds with a heart-wrenching inecitability. Even as they are stuffed into cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, the townspeople refuse to believe rumors of anti-Semitic atrocities. Not until they are marched toward the blazing crematory at the camp’s “receptions center” does the terrible truth sink in.

Recounting the evils at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel’s enduring classic of Holocaust literature raises question of continuing significance for all future generations: How could man commit these horrors, and could such crimes against humanity ever be repeated?

My Thoughts:

It has been almost 30 years since I read Night the first time. I was riveted by it as a teenager, and now, having listened to it this time around, I am equally moved, but in an entirely different way.

What I did not remember from my first reading of this book is how spare and minimal the language is. Wiesel is a master of understatement. I was actually a little (ok, a lot) bothered by the fact that, as I listened, I kept having the impression that these were awful, terrible, wrenching things for Wiesel to experience at 15 years of age, but they were ultimately survivable. And clearly in Wiesel’s case, they were, but that is not the point. It is actually a testament to Wiesel’s mastery of storytelling that he doesn’t overwhelm us with the monumental evil that was perpetrated on the Jews and so many others. He gives us just enough to digest, enough that we are easily able to infer the true scope of Hitler’s vision.

Wiesel speaks to all of the above in the prologue to the revised translation that was published in 2006. He discusses specifically the need to not say too much, and his concerns that even after editing, he still worried that he had overstated his experiences. I truly can not comprehend how the Holocaust could be overstated…even the name is (in Wiesel’s words) an understatement. Nevertheless, I do understand that the further away we move historically from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the more “unbelievable” it becomes to those reading about it for the first time, and in that respect Wiesel has written a book that can be believed without saying, repeatedly, “That’s impossible!”

The only thing I can add, at this point, is that this book is not to be missed.

REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

to kill a mockingbirdFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  General Fiction / Classic Lit
ISBN:  0060888695  / ASIN:  B00RWP9J2G
Published:  1960 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Harper Lee’s classic novel of a lawyer in the Deep South defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl.

One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has earned many distinctions since its original publication in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize, has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, and been made into an enormously popular movie. Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.

My Thoughts:

There is nothing to say about this book that hasn’t already been said…probably 100 times. I adore this book – always have, always will. It is as close to a perfect book as I have ever read, and the audio book is the icing on the cake. Sissy Spacek is Scout Finch come to life, with a voice that is exactly as I imagined Scout in my head. Spacek delivers spectacularly, making Harper Lee’s beautiful book a living, breathing work of art.

REVIEW: My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

my life and hard timesFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  Short Stories
ISBN:  9780060933081
Published:  1933

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Widely hailed as one of the finest humorist of the twentieth century, James Thurber looks back at his own life growing up in Columbus, Ohio, with the same humor and sharp wit that defined his famous sketches and writings. In My Life and Hard Times, first published in 1933, he recounts the delightful chaos and frustrations of family, boyhood, youth odd dogs, recalcitrant machinery, and the foibles of human nature.

My Thoughts:

I love James Thurber, and I especially love that this book is autobiographical. His stories are hilarious, partly because they are so absurd, but perhaps more so because of Thurber’s exquisite command of the language. He tells the stories perfectly, with no extraneous words, and it is as though you are a fly on the wall watching an utterly unbelievable event.

What is also great about this collection is the essay that precedes it. Certainly written by a literaty critic who has accurately assessed Thurber’s body of work, he is also an unabashed fan of Thurber – the man and the writer – which makes it the perfect preface for this book.

If your only experience with Thurber is “The Night the Bed Fell,” as mine was, you will not be disappointed.

REVIEW: 1984 by George Orwell

1984 animal farmFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Literature
ISBN:  143320326X
Published:  1949 / 2007 audio

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.

My Thoughts:

I have no idea how to review this book, except to say it is utterly brilliant, utterly startling, and disturbing on a profound level.

I am fairly sure I got a lot more out of it now than I would have had I read it as a teen. I keep thinking abut the “doublethink” concept in the book, and how that reminds me of so much that is happening now politically, though in a more “unofficial” capacity. What struck me the most, however, was the rewriting of history. While not done in the same manner as the book describes, we certainly do have a lot of it going on nonetheless, and it left me feeling pretty disturbed that George Orwell was thinking and writing this in 1949, and we seem to have learned nothing since then.