BOOK REVIEW: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanHalf Blood Blues
By Esi Edugyan
Completed April 26, 2012

I always say in my book reviews: When a book can teach me something new about history, then I am a fan. In her highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan taught me a different perspective of World War II – one that incorporates American and German jazz musicians who shared a common love of music.

The book is told from the viewpoint of Sid Griffiths, the bass player for an up-and-coming jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers, who were playing in jazz clubs throughout Berlin. Jazz was hot in pre-World War II Germany, but when Hitler came to power, he considered the music to be “degenerate.” This left Sid and his band mates, namely his boyhood friend, Chip, and a black German horn player, Hiero, out of work. The 1939 sections of the story center around the band mates’ escape from Germany and their brief time together in Paris.

Fast forward more than 50 years, and the story focuses on elder Sid and Chip, who are returning to Germany for a jazz festival in Hiero’s honor.  Sid watched Hiero get arrested in Paris, and he assumed Hiero died, but Chip has information that will test Sid’s belief. Once they arrive in Berlin, they decide to travel to Poland to learn what happened to Hiero.

Many reviewers found Half Blood Blues to be slow-paced. However, I felt the complete opposite: I was completely riveted by the story, turning pages late into the night. This may be the result of my insatiable curiosity about World War II history, but I have to think that Edugyan’s superb writing style also played a part. Another common complaint was the jargon used throughout the dialogues: it was a blend of black vernacular mixed in with 1940’s slang. Germans were “boots,” women were “janes.” It did not bother me too much, but I understand where these critiques are coming from.

For me, Half Blood Blues was the complete package: gripping, humanistic, real. I am pleased that Edugyan has been short listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, and I hope lovers of literary and historical fiction will find their way to this book. ( )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader by Bernhard SchlinkThe Reader
By Bernhard Schlink
Completed December 11, 2011

I picked up The Reader from a Borders closeout sale. It was cheap, and the cover with Kate Winslet on it reminded me that people liked the novel and movie. I had no idea what it was about,  but who could give up a bargain?

What I didn’t bargain for was to be completely moved by this story. How I wish I could have read The Reader with a lively book group or in a college class! The Reader has so many ethical layers that it left me thinking about the book long after I finished the last page. And, for me, that’s the hallmark of a provocative story.

I won’t give too much away because I think discovering the plot twists are part of the book’s appeal. In short, at the age of 15, Michael Berg falls in love with a woman more than twice his age. Hanna was mysterious and sensual – a adolescent’s dream. When she took off one day without notice, Michael was heartbroken and never fully recovered from the loss of Hanna from his life. Their paths cross again, though, and Michael learns about Hanna’s secrets – many of which are deplorable. How can this be the same Hanna he fell in love with as a teenager?

From a historical fiction perspective, The Reader exposes the moral dilemmas of the German generation whose parents were involved in the Third Reich, which is a viewpoint I had never considered before. Mix this with compelling characters and ethical questions, and you have The Reader. If you love historical fiction and thought-provoking stories, The Reader will leave you very satisfied. (  )

REVIEW: The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert

The Dark Room by Rachel SeiffertThe Dark Room
By Rachel Seiffert
Completed November 30, 2010

Over the past year or two, I have been drawn to books about World War II. Most are told from the perspective of the Allied nations or Jewish people affected by the Holocaust. I am glad to have stumbled upon Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, which offers the perspective of the average German citizen affected by World War II.

The Dark Room is divided into three separate stories:

1) Helmet is a young photographer’s apprentice, whose family supported Hitler and prospered during The Third Reich’s heyday. Even at war’s end, Helmet still clung to Nazi Germany’s ideals. Then, one day, he stumbles into a round-up of gypsies by German soldiers and sees the gross mistreatment of these people. He took pictures of the atrocity and ran away from the scene. As he reflects over his photos, you feel his heartbreak for a nation lost in so many ways.

2) Lore is a teenage girl – one of six children – who must embark on a treacherous journey from Bavaria to Hamburg at the end of the war. Through Lore’s journey, you see how war affected the home front and the people who once were bound by the same cause. No longer united, they stole and cheated from each other. Like Helmet, Lore didn’t realize Germans was killing innocent people, until she saw pictures posted in a village. Confused by what she saw, she befriended a young man, Tomas, who confirmed the genocide. Lore was devastated, especially as she considered her father and brother might have been involved in these mass murders.

3) Michael is a school teacher living in 1990’s Germany who began wondering why his grandfather had been imprisoned for so long after World War II. He began to research and learned that his grandfather was part of the Waffen SS, the elite police force of the German Army. He traces his grandfather’s service to Belarus and traveles there to learn more. The important theme in Michael’s section is national guilt – how after 50+ years, some Germans truly mourned what their country did, while others didn’t grasp it, or were too far removed from the war to be impacted. Michael, though, couldn’t forget and carried the weight of guilt for his whole family.

Admittedly, The Dark Room is a bit bleak, but Seiffert pulls you right in so you can experience the characters’ emotions. Seiffert writes simply but effectively, and her sparse prose adds to the brevity of her stories. Despite the grim subject matter, I found this book to be enlightening and engaging – and would highly recommend it, especially to those who believe, like me, that war has no true winner. ( )

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