Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish author who was sent to Auschwitz and Dachau from 1943-1945. When he was twenty-one, his fiancee was arrested by Nazis at a friend’s apartment, and when Borowski went to look for her, he was ultimately sent to the concentration camps as well (both were part of underground activities in Warsaw). After his release, he searched for his fiancee and found her living in Sweden. Meanwhile, he was working as a writer and journalist. He eventually did marry his fiancee, but in 1952 at the age of 28, just three days after his wife gave birth, he committed suicide (there had been two previous attempts).
According to the book’s introduction by Jan Kott, writers/survivors at the time were expected to write either martyrologies or Communist works that were ideological and clearly showed right and wrong. Borowski was determined to document all that he had witnessed at Auschwitz and Dachau so that history would not be forgotten. However, his writings shocked a lot of people with their subject matter because of the perspectives they revealed. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of concentration camp stories released a couple of years following Borowski’s release.
Greetings from Olso! I’ve been here less than 24 hours, but it’s been love at first sight for me!
While looking for Norwegian authors for this vacation-related reading project of mine, I came across Sigrid Undset and discovered that 1) she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and 2) a lot of her books are set in the Middle Ages and feature strong female characters. That, of course, sold me! I settled on Gunnar’s Daughter, her first historical novel, mostly because of its settings and the fact tat it was short enough to read before my trip. I’m glad I did, because it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
The book is set mostly in 11th century Iceland and Norway. Ljot and his uncle Veterlide are Vikings who sail over to Norway. They become guests of one of the most powerful landowners there, and twenty-year- old Ljot immediately falls in love with the landowner’s spoiled teenage daughter, Vigdis Gunnarsdottir. Because of her beauty and position of privilege, she has had many suitors, but she keeps rejecting everyone. Her father allows this, as he leaves the choice of suitor up to her.
Greetings from Reykjavik! For the next month, I’ll be blogging from Europe!
Infused with magical realism, the superstitions from centuries past, and grim Icelandic history, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is a book that defies categorization. Beginning in 1635, the book that follows the life of Jónas Palmason the Learned. Palmason is a self-taught healer and poet who treated women’s illnesses in his youth and was ultimately exiled from Iceland at the age of 61 for committing alleged heresies.
The book describes the time after the Catholic Reformation; people are still holding onto their old beliefs and superstitions, but ideologies are slowly shifting towards Christianity. Jónas loves learning for the sake of learning, but while he was a peculiar child, he is an outcast as an adult. By default, his wife Sigga must suffer alongside him; she, too, was ahead of her time and knew all about science and math as a child, knowledge she was told to keep to herself (Sigga was great; I actually would have loved to hear more about her in the wake of the book’s turn of events). The two made a perfect couple, but life in the remote Snjafjoll coast is harsh, and their sorrows are compounded by the deaths of their children.
Spoilers & trigger warning after the jump.
Beatrice Prior lives in a dystopian Chicago that has been split into five factions based on different virtues: Abnegation, which focuses on selflessness; Erudite, which focuses on intelligence; Dauntless, which focuses on bravery; Candor, which focuses on honesty; and Amity, which focuses on peacefulness. Children are raised within their parents’ factions, and every year, all sixteen-year-olds go through a special test to see which faction they belong to. They then have a choosing ceremony to pick which faction they’d like to be in, regardless of their test results. Most stay with their families, but all go through a trial period; if they don’t make it, they’re kicked out and become factionless, doomed to a life of homelessness and poverty.
Beatrice and her brother are both participating in the choosing ceremony this year. They’re Abnegation, and their parents work in government. At the moment, Abnegation is at odds with Erudite; Erudite has been spreading rumors about Abnegation in an attempt to take more control of the government. It’s more important than ever for Abnegation to stick together. Beatrice has always felt like she never fully fit in with Abnegation, but the thought of changing factions and leaving her family forever pains her. Her test she and her brother take the day before the ceremony are supposed to make everything clear, but they only confuse her even more.
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
Publisher/Year: Knopf, 2013
Narrator: Robin Miles
Length: 7 hrs, 3 minutes
What it is: Claire Limyé Lanmé (Claire of the Sea Light) Faustin is a little girl growing up in the fictional fishing village of Ville Rose, Haiti. Her mother died in childbirth, and on Claire’s seventh birthday, her father, Nozias, decides to give her to a local shopkeeper so that she can have a better life. The book all takes place on this one day that the shopkeeper comes for her, though it dips into the past as it highlights the lives of several of the villagers.
Why I listened to it: I just wanted to (Danticat has long been on my to-read list), and the cover called out to me. It’s pretty.
What I thought: This is not your traditional novel; the book is more like a series of related vignettes that have been strung together. The book begins and ends with Claire, but the chapters in between are told from the perspective of people only tangentially linked to Claire’s life. It was a little confusing at first, especially since I was listening on audiobook. I sometimes wasn’t sure if the book had skipped a few chapters; that’s how different the plot could be from one moment to the next. At first, I went, “Hey, what happened to Claire?” Danticat gets you emotionally attached to her, only to set her aside for most of the book in order to focus on a handful of other characters’ lives. But it works. In the end, you only have glimpses of lot of different characters, but you feel for all of them. It’s a slim novel that leaves you wanting more, and yet it’s perfect the way it is.
Asunder by Chloe Aridjis
Publisher/Year: Mariner Books, 2013
What it is: Marie works as a guard at the National Gallery in London. She enjoys the silent atmosphere and the responsibility of watching over the artwork. Doing so keeps up part of her great-grandfather’s legacy: he was the guard on duty when a suffragette sliced apart a famous painting at the beginning of World War I; he fell and wasn’t able to stop her. But after nine years of working at the National Gallery, Marie is also stuck in a rut.
Why I read it: I enjoyed Aridjis’s debut novel, Book of Clouds.
What I thought: Like her first book, Asunder is oftentimes more atmosphere than plot. Large chunks go by where not much happens other than Marie’s meandering observations of the world. She does artwork with eggshells (symbolism). She observes people walking by (symbolism), especially at the museum. A class comes in, and the professor process to teach her students about craquelure, the natural and unavoidable cracking of paint on a canvas as time goes by (this was actually one of my favorite passages in the book). Anyway, cracks on a canvas. More symbolism. Obviously, something is happening with Marie. But, in keeping with the subdued and introspective nature of Aridjis’s writing, there are no mind-blowing, thrilling plot twists. If you need action in your books, this definitely isn’t the book for you. Personally, I find Aridjis’s works to be vaguely weird, philosophical, and slow. I liked it.