Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The question is: How accurate does an author have to be when writing an historical novel? If it’s fiction shouldn’t they be allowed to take some poetic license, otherwise the book would be more in the nonfiction realm. Well then, do certain topics require a heavier touch? Perhaps books covering more recent history need to be a little more accurate than most so as not to offend those who have lived through those events. (The Cellist from the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo had some harsh works for the author Steve Galloway for adding his own twist to this real life occurrence). What about The Holocaust? While the survivors are quickly reaching the end of their lives, places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum maintain vast records documenting the details surrounding the Nazi concentration camps. They are obsessed about the truth and find offense in inaccuracies which they fear will be fodder for those who believe the Holocaust was a hoax.
Heather Morris had the opportunity to meet Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who while imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 was forced to tattoo numbers onto the arms of thousands of incoming prisoners. At the age of 87, Lali was looking for someone to record his story and what an incredible tale he had to tell. Over a period of three years Morris met with the Holocaust survivor taking extensive notes. After his death in 2006, she created a screen play based on her interviews, but she eventually revised her efforts and published a fiction novel entitled The Tattooist of Auschwitz, changing a few of the details to dramatize the story. Based on this publication, Lali’s story is in the process of becoming a miniseries (although written by Jacquelin Perske and not Morris) with an air date sometime in January 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz (consisting of Auschwitz and its sub-camps, Birkenau and Monowitz) was the only death camp where the prisoners were tattooed, using a series of numbers and sometimes letters to identify not just the captive but the circumstances which led them to be imprisoned. The Tattooist of Auschwitz centers on the charismatic and plucky Lale whose adeptness at five + languages resulted in the “privilege” of being selected as the concentration camp tattooist with all the “perks” which accompanied that position. With sleeping and eating arrangements far superior to those of the other captives, Lale had a better chance of survival. However, by “cooperating” with the enemy, even if under the threat of death for disobeying orders, he feared retribution from the other inhabitants of the camp whose situations were so much more untenable. The reality was that his loyalties remained with his “friends” and he regularly slipped extra rations to those in need. Through ingenuity, chutzpah, and luck, Lale found a way to acquire and distribute contraband allowing some relief from the constant hunger endured by the prisoners. Ultimately this book takes a romantic turn when Lale meets the love of his life, Gita, inspiring a determination that the two of them would survive this ordeal despite the numerous obstacles which stood in the way of them achieving this seemingly impossible dream.
So what is the uproar about the lack of authenticity all about?  Morris, living in Australia, made the mistake of claiming this book was thoroughly researched and 95% accurate, a claim she had to walk back when some glaring recognizable errors as well as a host of logistical inaccuracies were revealed. This raised the hackles of The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum who felt that since the book was based on an actual survivor of the holocaust, the author had a greater responsibility when presenting this story to the world.
Morris responded that she would leave the facts to the historians and the  museum decided to treat the novel as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”,  which is just fine for the majority of readers who responded positively to this book. Of interest is the comment made by Heather Morris stating that Lali applauded the idea that she was not Jewish, wanting someone with a clean slate to portray his traumatic tale, an opportunity she used to create her debut novel.
While I was annoyed at some of the bigger gaffs (such as Lale obtaining the unavailable penicillin on the black market to treat Typhus when PABA was the accepted treatment at the time), it was the actual writing style which disappointed me. I also felt there should have been more depth in the characterizations and that certain events could have been more fully explored in the plot line. Written in the present tense, this novel reflects the fact that the original intent was to present a screenplay, not a book. Which is not to say that this story isn’t worth reading, it’s just that I expected more.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Bonner Publishjng Australia for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Advertisements

The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

Every Sunday in the congregation at my church there is a immigrant from Iran who prays at the communion rail longing to reunite with her son who was left behind when she emigrated to the United States. Through hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck she was able to sponsor the arrival of one of her sons, but her eldest is stuck overseas due to the current ban on refugees from certain middle eastern countries. Somehow he has made his way to Turkey and her heart is at high alert, hoping that his return to her loving arms is not just a pipe dream. Every time I see her, I pray that her dearest wish comes true.

So when I began to read The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, I could vicariously relate to the premise. A husband, wife and young child have left Korea for the United States, not realizing that a Civil War was imminent or that the conflict between the North and South would wreck havoc with their lives. It seems that their youngest daughter was left behind with family members and now there is no way they can reunite despite their best efforts. The tale is basically told from three points of view, Inja who finds herself quickly migrating with her relatives to South Korea away from the rebels who are brutalizing their neighborhood in the North, her sister Miran who is becoming Americanized in her new homeland, and Najin their mother who is heartbroken that she cannot find a way to reconcile her family so instead sends frequent care packages to show how much she loves her displaced child. Even though they eventually once again become a family, the ten plus years of separation have repercussions that are not easily resolved, especially when there are secrets hanging over their heads.

A sequel to the novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter, much of this story is based on the author’s experiences as one of the children who came with her parents to the United States for an extended visit in 1948 only to be forced to stay put when the Korean War broke out in 1950, leaving her baby sister to survive the upheaval with the help of her grandmother back in their homeland. The friction portrayed between the siblings is based on reality, since it was not until Eugenia connected with her roots that she began to understand the dynamics which had influenced both their lives.

A great idea, despite the uneven pacing and plot development, made worthwhile if only as an exploration of an honorable people caught in an untenable situation. This is an approachable story dealing with a country which is very much in the news as our President plans to meet once again with Kim Yon Un to continue a discourse once again encouraging a ban on the development of nuclear weapons so that the 60+ year Korean conflict might one day be history.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

Yes, I realize that not everybody has read the Anne of Green Gables series. I know, it was a shock when I realized that someone could spend an entire childhood without knowing the kindred spirit of Anne Shirley, but I can only hope they’ve at least seen one of the miniseries created from these books.

Luckily for us, Sarah McCoy is a fellow fan. What fascinated her was the little comment Marilla made to Anne about John Blythe, Gilbert’s dad, who had once been her beau until they had some silly quarrel and she was too proud to back down. That aside stuck in McCoy’s craw and motivated her to develop an entire back story about Marilla Cuthbert leading to research on that area of Canadian history and a trip to Avonlea in Prince Edward Island (where she developed a connection with the descendants of Lucy Maude Montgomery, the creator of Anne of Green Gables) with her mother who had introduced Sarah to these beloved books. Wanting to do justice to Montgomery’s intent, McCoy studied her original words so as to stay true to the characters while also allowing herself some poetical license in the writing of Marilla of Green Gables.

Marilla’s tale starts with her brother’s collapse in the barn and the decision to send for an orphan boy to help around the farm (we know how that turned out), the reader is then taken back in time to a thirteen year old Marilla, her twenty one year old brother Matthew, her pregnant mother Clara and hardworking father Hugh who had just completed their new gabled home for his growing family. We get to intimately know their personalities, friendships, and the doings of the town which shaped Marilla’s demeanor. We meet Rachel White, Marilla’s best friend; the disdainful Pyes; the neighborly Blythes. We discover the origin of the beloved broach which Anne is accused of losing, and the famous cherry cordial which Diana mistakenly imbibes. Marilla is not immune to the beauty of her home and she is the one who names it Green Gables. Her close ties to her brother Matthew are evident even though there is an eight year difference in their ages.

Sarah, you couldn’t have picked a more worthy subject and I’m pleased to say you’ve done it justice. For those who love Anne with an “e”, you will delight in getting to know the back story behind the straightforward, intelligent, strong willed, but secretly kindhearted Marilla. Despite getting teary eyed more than once (after all I know how it all ends), it was well worth the angst to discover the details, fictional thou they may be, of one of the most stalwart characters in literature.

And if you felt McCoy strayed too far from Montgomery’s intent/style to portray life in Avonlea during the mid-19th century, then there is a solution – Write your own book.

Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and William Morrow Publishers for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

I’d never read a book by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, but his 1992 Man Booker Prize winner, The English Patient, is on my “to read” list, so I thought I’d give his newest novel, Warlight, which is on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a try.

Part one of the novel deals with the childhood in 1945 London of Nathaniel (Stitch) whose parents abandon him and his sister Rachel (Wren) when they are in their teens and place them in the hands of some somewhat unsavory characters (The Moth and his pal The Darter) who involve them in their nefarious everyday activities. Not that fourteen year old Nathaniel minds. Who wouldn’t want to skip school to drive around to various destinations with a car full of greyhounds or, better yet, steer a boat through the waterways of England to various ports to deliver these same goods – unknown quantities with questionable pedigrees – to compete in underground dog racing? He learns a lot about secrecy, especially concealing his sexual trysts with Agnes, who finds them empty houses for sale listed with her real estate brother – homes bereft of furniture where they can do the deed without being disturbed. Fun times, but living on the edge can be dangerous and the siblings start to wonder where their mother really is (they could care less about their dad) when they discover her trunk, which had been carefully packed in their presence, untouched in the attic still full of her things. She definitely is not in the stated destination of Singapore.

Which leads to Part Two, where Nathanial, fifteen years later, is on a quest to discover the truth about his mum, Rose. Rachel is out of the scene and no one else is around from those forgone times of his youth, so he’s going it alone, surreptitiously searching for evidence at the Intelligence Agency where he works. Nathaniel’s narrative provides details from his teen years as clues into the truth, showing up as he attempts to find some sort of explanation, as the faces and names from his past provide the stepping stones necessary to reconstruct his mother’s days during the war to find the answers he desperately needs in order to move forward with his life.

Reading Warlight is like walking through a murky night getting glimpses of where you are headed but still not quite sure you are going in the right direction. Some of the visualizations are fascinating, but the plot meanders making it difficult to follow, causing the reader to make guesses as to what is actually happening, not daring to ever ask why. The concept of Schwer, part of the secret language between siblings, is ever present, representing the struggles during a post war London reconstructing after the Blitz. Even the occasional ray of sunshine Ondaatje allows to peer through his words does not provide enough light to overcome the dreariness left by the war nor its effects on this family. A thoroughly depressing book which fails to be lifted out of its angst by Nathaniel’s discoveries. However, the entire tale has a haunting effect as compared to most literature which is too often read and forgotten, although it is a complicated, difficult read, not for the casual reader. Three and a half stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

It is misleading to say that The Unbinding of Mary Reade (please note the extra “e”) is based on historical facts since the author, Miriam McNamara plays fast and loose with the so called “truth”. Yes, Mary Read, Anne Bonnie, and Calico Jack Rackham were pirates together, but the timeline is ignored leading to a misleading narrative. What is true is that the illegitimate Mary Read was brought up disguised as her half brother Mark so as to financially benefit off her “grandmother” with the proceeds of her deceit supporting her mother. Eventually she joined the British Military and fought against the French in the Nine Years War. Mary married, settled in the Netherlands, and ran an inn, but after her husband’s early death she once again took up the role as a man and ended up on a ship traveling to the West Indies which was taken hostage by pirates who she gladly joined. She accepted the governor’s pardon in 1718-19 and became a privateer, basically a pirate for the crown, but the ship mutinied and it was at this point she joined the pirates Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny (who also was disguised as a man). Eventually both their true identities were revealed. Ironically, Anne’s father had unsuccessfully forced Anne to take on a boys identity in her youth to hide the fact she was his illegitimate daughter.

While in the book McNamara portrays the two female pirates as roughly the same age, in fact, Mary Read was thirteen to fifteen years older. Of interest is the gender fluid nature of both these female buccaneers who seemed to take pleasure from men but were rumored to have an intimate relationship with each other as well, switching back and forth between the sexes as the situation dictated. That they were fierce fighters is not in doubt, shown by their efforts to hold off the invaders intent on taking them captive, although they were eventually outnumbered and captured because the male crew were too drunk to fight. Both ladies were “with child” so spared the fate of their male counterparts who were hanged for high treason. While Mary is believed to have died of child fever in a Jamaican prison (buried April 28, 1721), Anne was luckier, possibly rescued by her influential father, William Cormac, ending up in her birthplace of South Carolina.

As you can see, Mary’s life was actually quite fascinating, but the author somehow found a way to make it mundane. I had to force myself to finish this book, which seemed to drag on and on.

Back and forth between 1704, 1707, 1717, and 1719 alternating between the locales of London and the Caribbean, the backstory comes too late, leaving the reader confused as to exactly what is happening. Ultimately, the intriguing details of the lives of these two rebellious woman are not used to their best advantage. There was too much tell, not enough show, with the author too often describing the events rather than putting the characters in the midst of the action.

However, this book’s one saving grace is bringing Mary and Anne to our attention and I suggest a look at A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724, which provides the basis of many of the myths surrounding this fascinating period on the high seas.

Two stars and a thank you though both Netgalley and Edelweiss for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Everyone in Brooklyn was a Dodgers fan at Ebbots Field, at least until the team moved to Los Angeles. If you lived in this borough of New York City from 1951 to 1952 you probably attended Brooklyn College (my father did) and spent time at Coney Island eating a hot dog at Nathan’s. The sand was hot, the ocean cold, the beach was so crowded you had to stake out a good spot, but it was home.

In Brooklyn you lived in a building, often in tiny apartments, saving up money to move where you could have a plot of land of your own. (Actually our apartment was large, inherited from my grandmother who was the original tenant – gotta love that rent control). Having a house with a yard was a dream which every child carried in their heart (and we had to move to a suburb in Buffalo to get that house).

Despite being a large, crowded city, the neighborhoods kept life intimate. You knew the people in your building and the vendors in the local shops, mainly family owned. Yet in between was the busyness of Brooklyn which carried a flavor not found in the surrounding small towns in upstate New York.

Being a diverse metropolis, the rules were a little different. While the various ethnic groups congregated amongst themselves, the shopping centers had to be open to all, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, or Black, especially here where so many immigrants settled after making the trip across the Atlantic.

This is the city where I was born (at the Caledonia Hospital on Caton Ave). It’s not necessarily the exact place described in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but my childhood occurred a few years later. (My grandparents were also born in Brooklyn, but their folks came over from Eastern Europe at an earlier, even more desperate time in the late 1800s). Yet, the feel is recognizable.

Enter Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, who is sponsored by Father Flood in her move to his Irish Parish. He sets up a room for her in an Irish Boarding House with 5 other Irish girls, and arranges for a job as a salesgirl at Bartocci’s, a local department store. Then when Eilis gets homesick, he signs her up for night classes at Brooklyn College to earn her certificate as a bookkeeper, a subject she studied back in Ireland. She meets a nice boy at the Friday Night Dances at the Parish and her life seems perfect, but “stuff” happens.

Eilis is the type of person who goes along to get along. She’s from an era and a culture where women don’t have much of a say in their lives. They are obedient children who marry, keep house, and have children of their own. Ellis seems to go with the flow, unable to speak up when events spin out of control forcing her on a path which she isn’t sure is the right one for her. Her first job back in Ireland is at a local grocery store and the owner simply sends for her, unasked, when she discovers Ellis has a talent for figures. Rose, Ellis’ older sister, arranges for her to travel to America, and “surprises” her with the “fait accompli”. Her behavior at the rooming house is dictated by the owner, and her free time is guided by her housemates. It takes feigning an illness to get out of the Friday night dance, since Ellis doesn’t have the courage to outright refuse to go. Even her beau decides when their relationship should go to the next level and she just guesses that this is okay, although in her heart she is unsure. Fate seems to be her guideposts, and the tide of life sweeps her along its path to the next steps on the most convenient road.

I’m not judging, since her life doesn’t seem to be a hardship, one just wonders what “might have been” and the author even gives us a taste of that before he pulls the rug out from under the reader and has circumstances steer Ellis’ direction back on track.

A delightful and easy read on a bygone era in a beloved (for me) spot. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa translated by Archibald Colquhoun

What pushes a piece of literature from a mere book into a work of art? Is it the ability to construct a significant moment in time transporting us to another era? Is it the exquisitely expressive language making the surroundings come alive? Or is it the richness of the characters spawning a three dimensional persona which transcends the words on the page?

Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is a novel which demonstrates all of the above and more. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on the life of Lampedusa’s Great Grandfather as well as the Palace outside his home of Palmero which was bombed during World War II. Perhaps it’s because The Leopard explores the ramifications of the reunification of Italy, focusing on Garibaldi who overthrew the monarchy and was then himself overthrown. Perhaps it’s because the author had lived through two world wars and was full of memories of a different time when being an aristocrat represented a noble dignity which was revered by the common folk.

In any case, Lampedusa spent the last few years of his life creating a piece of literature which was eventually considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the twentieth century, winning the Premio Strega in 1959. Unfortunately, these accolades came too late, since he was unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to publish this book during his lifetime.

Don Fabrizio is a Sicilian Prince from Salina watching the aristocratic way of life fading away during a series of political upheavals in 1865. A dreamer, forced to focus on his day to day responsibilities, he finds refuge in watching the stars and studying mathematics, a past time disdained by the common man but excused in someone so distinguished and revered. The Prince has been brought up with refined sensibilities, polite to a fault, and observing all the niceties of nobility, attributes he finds lacking in his own sons. It’s his charismatic nephew, Tancredi Falconari, who has the qualities to carry on the tradition. Fabrizio, at the age of forty five, looks back on his life contemplating the past and reliving the glory days via the romance between Tancredi and the bewitching Angelica Sedara. When Angelica kisses the middle-aged Don on the check and calls him uncle, he gladly gives her a piece of his heart.

The climax of the plot is not the Leopard’s death at the age of seventy +, but the ball he attends where he sees his former lovers, now old like him, and laments his lost youth. Hiding away in the library, Tancredi and Angelica find him and drag him back to the party where he, an excellent dancer, has one waltz with his beautiful niece-to-be, becoming the focus of attention for a roomful of admirers who spontaneously break into applause. Not wanting to be a third wheel, he resists their pleas to join them for supper and instead stands in the corner watching their mutual devotion while eating a decadent dessert. In the movie, starring an all Italian cast (except for lead actor, Burt Lancaster), this scene is the major focus of the film.

In the end all that’s left are his elderly three daughters trying to hang on to what remains of their family dignity via the private religious services in the family chapel. Connecting their bittersweet past to “modern times” is the pelt of their long deceased papa’s favorite dog, Bendico. In order to move forward, leaving unrequited grievances behind, this symbol must be discarded. After all, it’s all about things “changing in order that they may remain the same”.

This book is so rich in imagery and content that my remarks fail to do it justice. Amazingly, Archibald Colquhoun captures the melancholy essence of Lampedusa’s words in his translation. In fact, the reader would never guess that the original was not written in English. While there isn’t a lot of action, the strong presence of the characters, especially The Prince, carries the plot. Five stars.