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.

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: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

pinocchioFormat:  Paperback (Puffin Classic)
Genre:  Classic Children’s Lit
ASIN:  B00AR0CUM4
Published:  1972

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The old wood-carver Gepetto decides to make a wonderful puppet which can dance and turn somersaults, but by chance he chooses an unusual piece of wood – and the finished puppet can talk and misbehave like the liveliest child. But Pinocchio is brave and inquisitive as well as naughty, and after some hair-raising adventures, he earns his heart’s desire.

My Thoughts:

This is definitely not your Disney Pinocchio, and thank goodness for that, because it is a better and more complex story than Disney’s version. Interestingly, I did not know until reading Carlo Collodi’s book that Pinocchio did not come alive after he was created, but rather as Gepetto was creating him, and it was due to the wood he was carved from, not from Gepetto’s love (or whatever Disney attributed his “life” to). He was much worse than I knew him to be from the stories I read up to now. Sure, he lies, and his nose grows when he lies. But that is not the first negative character trait, nor the worse. He is selfish, self-centered, rude, shallow, irresponsible, gullible, inconsistent, and lazy. As a result, he constantly finds himself in trouble, and often in grave danger, such that he is nearly always at the mercy of a kind stranger to help him out of his jam, which they are often convinced to do because he showers them with promises that he will now be a better boy.

His only redeeming character trait is that he does seem to love Gepetto (his father), and feel genuine affection for different individuals he encounters throughout the book. I think it is this affection that drives his promises to be good, as he really does want someone to be proud of him. But because he is shallow and self-centered, he always forgets, and ends up right back in trouble again.

It is gratifying, though, to see him gradually come to a true understanding of what it takes to be “real,” and therein lies the best reason for teaching this book in school. It addresses virtuous behavior…honesty, kindness, helpfulness, good citizenship, wisdom, caring for others more than oneself…and showing that it is only when Pinocchio’s heart changes that he becomes a real boy. These are not shallow lessons, and it’s a fairly brilliant way to teach not only virtues, but to live by the golden rule.

REVIEW: Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

EPSON scanner imageFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  Children’s Lit
ISBN:  978-0-14-240113-2
Published:  1977

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The star of her school’s running team, Sadako is lively and athletic…until the dizzy spells start. Then she must face the hardest race of her life—the race against time. Based on a true story, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes celebrates the courage that makes one young woman a heroine in Japan.

My Thoughts:

I liked this book a lot. I think the author did a really good job of dealing sensitively with the death of a child, in a way that was accessible to children. I liked that it is based on a true story, because it gives an opportunity for further conversations about the realities of war, of terminal illness, and of living with hope in the face of impossible odds. Finally, I liked that this girl was spirited and determined, that she worked hard, and that she persevered in the face of difficulty. These are such good lessons for kids to learn, and reading of someone their age, who did all of those things under increasingly dire circumstances, is inspiring to kids and adults alike.