Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In My Hands

Opdyke, Irene Gut. 1999. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.

I did not ask myself, Should I do this? But, How will I do this? Every step of my childhood had brought me to this crossroad; I must take the right path, or I would no longer be myself. You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One's first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence. Now I was making plans to... (142-143)

In My Hands is nonfiction--a memoir--and it's a powerful one. Full of descriptive images you might wish you'd never seen. But it's an important work, a necessary one. Our narrator, Irene Gut, was a Polish girl--a young woman training to be a nurse when the war burst into her life. The conflict between Germany and Russia stripping her of her childhood in more ways than one. Her account of what happened during the war years are powerful and haunting. But there is nothing over-the-top either. It's straightforward, spare, even.

This is her description of the purging of the Poland of Jews (I believe we're speaking of the ghettos.)
The gates were dragged open, and the Jewish prisoners were forced out through a gauntlet, while the guards beat at them with their rifle butts. An old man, tottering with a cane, was not fast enough, and a guard shot him on the spot. In vain, women tried to protect their small children from blows, men tried to shield their old fathers. But every time someone stumbled and fell under the beatings, shots rang out. The street was paved with bodies, and still the Jews were forced to march out over them.
We watched this from our windows in a paralysis of horror. We could do nothing but watch. We could not even pull back from the glass to keep hidden. An old rabbi carrying the Torah stopped to help a young woman with a shrieking toddler, and all three were shot. A graybeard in a faded uniform of the Polish army from the last war limped past the guards, and he, too, was not fast enough. The sun shone down on all of them, and the dust settled in pools of blood.
By this time, the four of us were crying uncontrollably. Helen was on her knees, sobbing in her mother's arms. Janina turned her face away. But I watched, flattening myself against the window. As I pressed against the glass, I saw an officer make a flinging movement with his arm, and something rose up into the sky like a fat bird. With his other hand he aimed his pistol, and the bird plummeted to the ground beside its screaming mother, and the officer shot the mother, too. But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird.

This is how she sums it up, "We did not speak of what we had seen. At the time, to speak of it seemed worse than sacrilege: We had witnessed a thing so terrible that it acquired a dreadful holiness. It was a miracle of evil. It was not possible to say with words what we had witnessed, and so we kept it safely guarded until the time we could bring it out, and show it to others, and say, "Behold. This is the worst thing man can do."" (118)

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key
by Tatiana De Rosnay

Genre: WWII/Holocaust

Synopsis from bn.com:

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

Once again, I've read a historical novel about a subject of which I have no knowledge. But, the cool part is the present day character is a journalist researching the event, so that problem was solved. I did know that France was occupied by Germany, and I had the vague understanding that Jews were rounded up in France during this time, but I had never heard of this particular incident.

The structure of this book was interesting. The book could really be split into parts, which the author doesn't formally do. But the first part alternates between Sarah's story and Julia's story---past and present, first-hand and second-hand. Sarah's first-hand story was really the most compelling (and heartbreaking) part of the book and I was bored at first with Julia. But, later I grew to understand her better, especially after making the right choice (which I won't describe here, suffice to say I agreed with her decision and was relieved when she made it). The second part of the book deals with the present generations and how they cope with the new found knowledge of Sarah's ordeal. Julia becomes obsessed with uncovering what happened to Sarah and revealing that knowledge to Sarah's family. I wasn't sure how I felt about Julia revealing Sarah's history, but in the end, it is better to know the truth.

A quick note about the typography: Sarah's chapters were set in a oldshool-type font whereas Julia's had a more modern feel. At first I was thought there was something wrong with the book, but when I realized the purpose, I thought it was an interesting idea. I love it when publishers/authors/printers play around design.

I read this book in two days, and I would have read it in one if hadn't had to go to work. I absolutely loved it. Eventually, I want to read some more about the Vel' d'Hiv roundup and the occupation. The few Holocaust books I have read or heard about don't focus on this aspect of the war.

Rating: 5 out of 5. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Yellow Star

by Jennifer Roy
ages 9-12

This is not a happy book. Then again, what book about the Holocaust is a happy book? Granted, this one has a happy ending -- it's a story based on the life of the author's aunt, and she survived -- but getting there is harsh, depressing, and painful. Which means that Roy did an incredible job depicting the life and circumstances of her aunt Syvia's childhood.

I'm trying to figure out a way to sum up the book without giving a mini-history lesson. For those who don't know their World War II history, this story of one of the 800 survivors -- only 12 of which were children -- of the Lodz, Poland ghetto is not a fun one to read. Written in verse, I think to mimic the spare conditions of Syvia's life, Roy captures the faith and family togetherness in the face of pure hopelessness quite well. There were parts that made me cringe -- the Nazis deported all the children at one point, tearing them from their family; it was only through the courage and resorcefulness of Syvia's father (and herself) that she managed to survive that time -- and others that made me cry. I am amazed at Syvia, and at the luck -- miracles? providence? chance? -- that she had during her life. There were so many (more than 270,000 people lived in the ghetto at one time) that didn't get her chance.

I'm not sure I can separate a critique of the book (can I say that in this instance I felt the verse was good, but unnecessary?) from the life. It's a good book -- not a great one -- with a worthy story. And a story worth reading. Which makes the book worth reading, too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hanukkah by Roni Schotter

Schotter, Roni. 1990. (Rereleased in October 2008). Hanukkah! Illustrated by Marylin Hafner.

This is a simple but joyful introduction to Hanukkah. It begins simply,

"In darkest December
Night steals in early
And whisks away the light.

But warm inside,
Mama, Papa, and Grandma Rose
Light the sun that is the menorah.

While Nora and Dan,
Ruthie and Sam
Sing a song that is a prayer."

That will give you some hint what the text is like. This one has won the National Jewish Book Award. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seaside Bookworm

My list is as follows:
Who By Fire By Diana Spechler
Zookeeper's Wife By Diane Ackerman
Hurry Down Sunshine By Michael Greenberg
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I may add a few more. I already read one by Michael Greenberg Hurry Down Sunshine.
You can read it at my blog at Jewish Rantings.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Callista's List

Here's my tentative list, subject to change.

1. The Illuminated Soul by Aryeh Lev Stollman
2. Hanna's Suitcase by Karen Levine
3. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy
4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

3M's List

I'm participating again! This is a start to my list, though I do reserve the right to change it:
  • Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar
  • Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  • What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn
  • Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

AJL Launches Podcast, Book Giveaway

November, 2008 -- For immediate release

New Podcast

Author talks, lectures on Jewish literature, panel discussions, and workshops are among the offerings of the newly launched Association of Jewish Libraries Podcast. Available at www.jewishlibraries.org/podcast, the program provides audio that enhances and enriches the listener's appreciation of Jewish book culture.

The podcast will include material recorded at the Association of Jewish Libraries annual convention, as well as recordings of Jewish literary events across North America. A wide range of topics will be covered, from the academic to the hands-on, from children's literature to technology.

"Jews are book lovers, and Jewish librarians even more so," says Susan Dubin, President of the Association of Jewish Libraries. "The AJL Podcast gives us a way to share our enthusiasm with others, without geographical or scheduling restrictions. Now everyone can learn and enjoy!"

How to Listen
New podcast episodes will be posted every few weeks. Listeners can hear the show online at www.jewishlibraries.org/podcast, subscribe via iTunes or other feed readers (using the feed http://feeds.feedburner.com/ajlpodcast), receive episodes by email via FeedBlitz, or listen by phone at (651) 925-2538.

Book Give-Away
To celebrate the launch of the podcast, AJL is offering a Jewish book give-away. Forward this press release or post its contents on a blog or web page to be entered into a drawing for five Jewish interest books from Hachette Book Group. Be sure to CC jewishlibraries@gmail.com on any forwarded messages or to email us about any posts. Complete contest rules and information about the give-away titles can be seen at jewishlibraries.org/podcast - click on the Contest page in the sidebar. Deadline for entry is December 12, 2008.

For more information, contact AJL Public Relations Chair Heidi Estrin at jewishlibraries@gmail.com

About the Association of Jewish Libraries
The Association of Jewish Libraries promotes Jewish literacy through enhancement of libraries and library resources and through leadership for the profession and practitioners of Judaica librarianship. AJL fosters access to information, learning, teaching and research relating to Jews, Judaism, the Jewish experience and Israel.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Jewish Giveaway

Shalom Y'all, I am hosting a giveaway at Jewish Rantings. This is in conjunction with Book Club Girl's Blog Talk Radio show, it will air on November 20th. I have 10 copies to give away. The book would be appropriate for the Jewish challenge. The book is called Who by Fire by Diana Spechler I am extending my giveaway till Monday of next week. Just stop by and write a comment and you are entered.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Keep Posting...

If you haven't posted all your reviews or your wrap-up yet, go ahead and post!

Monday, May 12, 2008


I completed the challenge a while ago; it was fun to have occasion to highlight some of the reading I do for my job as a temple librarian and share some of the great books I read. You can see my reviews here. Thanks to Callista for hosting the challenge.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


But, I did a lot of book talks at the college library for "History post Civil War" assignments. The Zoo Keeper's Wife, Diary of Anne Frank, and Night were all big circulation winners; especially, Night because it is very short. You remember college days, right?!?

Book Read: The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs.

Thank you for hosting this moving challenge.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Challenge Wrap-Up

Well I finished my challenge and had great fun. I'm glad so many people joined me for it. I fully intend to hold it again come Hanukkah.

Books I read:

Even Higher by Richard Ungar
Hanukkah by Roni Schotter
Hanukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights by Leslie Kimmelman
The Channukah Tree by Eric A. Kimmel
The Channukah Guest by Eric A. Kimmel
I Have a Little Dreidel by Maxie Baum
The Christmas Revolution by Barbara Cohen
The Rabbi's Girls by Johanna Hurwitz
Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman
Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn
Hooray it's Passover by Leslie Kimmelman
A Woman in Jerusalem by A.B. Yehoshua

You can find all my review here.

My favourite novel was Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn and my favourite picture book was The Channukah Guest by Eric A. Kimmel.

A Woman in Jerusalem by A.B. Yehoshua

Stars: ****

This is a very interesting novel by a Jewish author. It’s written differently than most books I’ve read. It’s written from a third person point of view and makes me feel like I’m listening to a narrator.

What’s really interesting is every so often throughout the book is a small italicized paragraph or two that shows what is thought from the point of view of someone not important to the story; for example a neighbour or guard. I found this extremely interesting and a great idea.

The actual storyline is quite different. The title makes you think the book is about a woman who lives in Jerusalem when in fact, the beginning of the book, the woman is dead and the whole book takes place after that. This is quite a unique perspective. To the average person, when someone dies, a funeral is held and they are buried and that is that. If it’s not someone you knew personally, than the details don’t concern you at all. This book gives a glimpse of how things work after someone dies from identification to finding next of kin to making arrangements for funeral and burial. It’s not extremely depressing though like you may think it is.

I also liked that the main character’s dreams are described in detail. It shows how our minds take things in our lives and jumble them up to make our dreams. This is why our dreams often don’t make sense, because they are a bunch of stories jumbled up into one. It’s like taking the pages of a short story book and rearranging them completely.All in all this was a very interesting book

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Becky's Completed List

Callista is hosting a new challenge, the Jewish Literature Challenge. It does have its own blog. I'm assuming she'll invite participants so they can post their as well as on their own blogs.

Golden Dreydl by Ellen Kushner
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischman
I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree by Laura Hillman
The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo
The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender
Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson
My Bridges of Hope by Livia Bitton-Jackson

3M's Challenge Wrap-up

I read six books for this challenge:

I highly, highly recommend the first four books on my list, especially Maus I and II. I really enjoyed this challenge. Thanks for hosting, Callista!

Maus I and II

maus11.JPGBrilliant. Powerful. Poignant. Intensely personal. In graphic novel format and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992, Maus is Vladek Spiegelman's story of his survival of Auschwitz during World War II. It is also a story of the father-son relationship between Vladek and Art. In this first book, Art interviews his father about his intense past. Each nationality is represented as a different animal. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, and the Poles are pigs. We not only see the absolute horrors of Auschwitz from a survivor's viewpoint, we also see one survivor's son deal with the guilt of just being the son of a survivor.

I first heard about this book through Dewey for the graphic novel challenge. Thanks so much, Dewey, for introducing me to this astounding work.

Highly recommended to all.

1986, 161 pp.
Rating: stars5.gif

maus2.JPGThe continuation of Maus, and subtitled And Here My Troubles Began (From Mauschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond), Maus II is every bit as astounding as Maus, and the two books really should be read together. In this book we learn more about the end of Vladek's life, and one of the questions that is posed from the book is:
They were survivors, but did they really and truly survive?

Art's struggles with his father's personality -- made so because of the war -- are clearly shown. He is very honest in his portrayal, even to the point of demonstrating his father's own prejudices -- something you would think would be non-existent in someone who had been persecuted himself.

Again, I highly recommend both books to all.

Serialized from 1973 to 1991, 127 pp.
Rating: stars5.gif

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Bridges of Hope

Bitton-Jackson, Livia. 1999. My Bridges of Hope.

My Bridges of Hope is the sequel to I Have Lived A Thousand Years. It is the middle book in a trilogy of the author's memoirs. (Though each book can and does stand alone just fine.) The book opens with Elli Friedmann and her mother and brother returning to their home town of Samorin after they were liberated by the Russian soldiers. Unlike some of the other returning Jews, they did find their home relatively intact. Stripped of furniture, yes, but still standing. The neighbors are shocked, extremely shocked to see them again. Shocked that they're living skeletons. But most of their closest neighbors are helpful. They give what they can, do what they can to make the Friedmann's home habitable again. This doesn't mean that every neighbor is this nice. And it doesn't mean that the family's possessions are returned from the neighbors who took them for safekeeping at the beginning of the war. But a few are ethical enough to return and restore.

"Out of Samorin's more than five hundred Jewis citizens, only thirty-six returned, mostly young men and women. Those who did not--our children, parents, grandparents, siblings, husbands, wives, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and lovers--have been replaced by an abyss." (18)

Imagine that if you will. Really think about it. My Bridges of Hope tells the stories of those in between years. Those years between 1945 and 1951 when Elli was growing up in such a strange and foreign environment. It looked a bit like her old home, her old town. But so many people missing, so many new people in their place, so many strangers--the Russians, the Communists coming to town and taking over. Nothing is ever the same, nothing could ever be the same.

In these years, Elli dreams of going to Israel. At the beginning of the book, it isn't even a state or nation yet. But the dreams, the Zionist dreams, are there both in Elli and in her friends. But it is decided that America will be their destination, if they can get in.

These are years of waiting and years of growing. A turbulent time of changing for Elli as she matures from a fourteen year old girl into a young woman of nineteen or twenty. The book records her hopes, her dreams, her loves, her losses, her disappointments.

Hanna's Suitcase, by Karen Levine

Hana's Suitcase, by Karen Levine, published in 2007, is the true story of a young Czech girl named Hana Brady, who was taken away by the Nazis along with her older brother George, and that of her suitcase, which through a chain of events ended up in Japan. It is also the story of a Japanese woman's efforts to find out about Hana- who she was and what happened to her. The book is incredibly moving. Illustrated with photographs of Hana and her family as well as the Holocaust center in Japan where her suitcase is found, Levine tells Hana's story in parallel with the story of the efforts to learn about her. This structure sets up two crushing waves of emotion that left me in tears by the end. It's bittersweet tragedy, told with beauty and sensitivity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy

Another review from Natasha of Maw Books.

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Another review from Natasha of Maw Books.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Another review from Natasha at Maw Books.

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

Another review from Natasha of Maw Books.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

A review from Natasha of Maw Books.

Lost in America by Marilyn Sachs

Another review from Mandy.

Daniel's Story by Carol Matas

Another review from Mandy.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Another review from Mandy.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

A review from Mandy.

Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

A review from Mandy.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books

Since this is my last post in the challenge, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books. The Schocken Guide is the book lover's passport into the world of Jewish books- basically it's an extended bibliography of Judaica in a range of subject areas, fully annotated and illustrated with photos and drawings. I found it on one of my trips into my local used book store; it caught my eye because I work in a synagogue library right now and was browsing the Judaica section for something that might be either a good addition to the collection or a useful tool for me. This book turned out to be both.

Schocken Books is a publishing company speicalizing in Judaica since it was founded in Germany in 1931. In 1987 it became a division of Random House but continues to publish popular Judaica in a broad range of subject area, and publishes authors like Anita Diamant and Aharon Applefield. See the official About Schocken page at Random House or the entry on Wikipedia for more information. In other words the company is an expert source when it comes to Jewish books.

Every chapter of The Schocken Guide is written by a different expert, mostly rabbis and college professors representing every stream of Judaism. The chapter on the Jewish Middle Ages, for example, is written by Ivan Marcus, a professor of history specializing in medieval Europe at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The chapter on immigration and Jews in America is written by Brandeis University professor of American Jewish History Jonathan D. Sarna. So it's not just one guy rattling off a list of his favorite books but scholars giving a gloss on the most useful volumes in his or her specialty.

The recommendations include all genres of writing- fiction, nonfiction, etc. And each section mixes genres so for example the chapter on the Holocaust includes Holocaust fiction as well as history and memoirs. This feature is useful for someone learning about a given topic because you can find all the information you need in one place. The well-researched chapters cover mostly scholarly topics like Jewish mysticism, Israel and Zionism, women, as well as separate chapters covering Hebrew and Yiddish literature as well as American Jewish novels.

It's been fifteen years since The Schocken Guide was published in 1993; I would love to see an updated version covering newer publishers like Jewish Lights and Gefen Books, and newer trends in Jewish publishing, like the recent spate of self help books. I think it would also be helpful to include some chapters on less-scholarly topics. At my library, the single most popular category of books for adults is cookbooks and it would be great to have an expert along the lines of Joan Nathan or Susie Fishbein tell me about the must-haves. It would also be helpful to include a directory of publishers and other resources in Jewish literature, like the National Yiddish Book Center or the Association of Jewish Libraries. But it is still incredibly useful for evaluating collections made up largely of older books and for anyone looking for a good read in Jewish religion, history, and literature.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Passover

Just wanted to wish everyone a Happy Passover. Hope you are all having fun with this challenge. There are only 6 days left. Happy reading!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Challenge Wrap-Up

Happy Passover!

I prepared this post in advance, since I will be spending all day Saturday in the kitchen cooking up our Seder meal!

Well, at least I can say I've finished one challenge this year, since I'm not doing so well on the others.

Books Read:

1. Living a Jewish Life: Jewish traditions, customs, and values for today's family - Anita Diamant (non-fiction) (finished 22 January 2008)
2. Moishe's Miracle: A Hanukkah Story - Laura Krauss Melmud (children's)
3. Hanukkah at Valley Forge - Stephen Krensky (children's)
4. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak (fiction) (finished 25 February 2008)
5. The Castle on Hester Street - Linda Heller (children's) (finished 7 February 2008)

The best book: They were all good in their own way. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Moishe's Miracle, although I also really loved The Book Thief.
What book could I have done without: None, I liked them all.
Any new authors: All except Anita Diamant.

Thanks, Callista for hosting this challenge!

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

I'm really not sure how many folks are familiar with Corrie ten Boom and her fascinating story, The Hiding Place. She was a Dutch Christian who, with her father and sister, hid Dutch Jews in their Haarlem house during World War II and Hitler's terrifying reign.

Corrie lost her father during their time in prison, and then her sister Betsie passed away while they were in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Corrie lived until 1983.

I really love this story. I saw the film "The Hiding Place" when I was growing up, and I subsequently read the book. After also reading Anne Frank's diary, I became fascinated with Jewish culture (which makes me a bit of an oddity as a Christian minister's wife, actually) and the sadness of the Holocaust, which is the most horrible crime against humanity in the 20th century.

I recomend this book, because it is a personal story. It shows that that well-meaning Christians died to help save Jews. And it shows the love of God.

Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox by Sharon Kahn

I thoroughly enjoyed this cozy mystery by Sharon Kahn. Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox is the fourth book in Kahn's "Ruby the Rabbi's Wife" mysteries. Ruby, a rabbi's widow, seems to find herself in the middle of a mystery that will take you from Alaska to New York from a small town in Texas.

I have become a fan of cozy mysteries in 2008, and this book turned out to be a great cozy. I really enjoyed it. I feel this is a book that would be enjoyed by everyone, not only those familiar with Jewish culture.

I also learned how lox is made. :-)

Pattie's Picks/Wrap-Up

**Wrap-Up at the end**

Hi, I'm Pattie the Fresh-Brewed Writer, and I'm happy to be joining this challenge! I decided to go ahead and finalize my list, giving myself two alternates in case I change my mind. I have this thing about not finishing challenges, so if I give myself room to change, maybe it won't be so difficult to complete.

Well, Shalom! I'm gonna get down with my bad Baptist self and join a Jewish Lit challenge!

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok (also a Something About Me challenge book)
The Hidden Life of Otto Frank by Carol Ann Lee (Dad gave me his copy)
[x] How Nancy Drew Saved My Life by Lauren Baratz-Logsyed (I have this book)
[x] Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox by Sharon Kahn (I have this book)
Suite française by Irène Némirovsky (I think I have this book somewhere)

Alternate selections (in case I can't finish the above books, or decide differently):

The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak (will have to find this one)
[x] The Hiding Place by Corrie tenBoom

**April 19: I don't think I am going to be able to finish this challenge. I only read three of the required five books. However, I do intend to finish my list at some point. Thanks for the opportunity to participate, and l'chaim to everyone!**

May 4: I did not finish, but these books that are not finished are still in Mt. TBR...so eventually I'll read them! No book leaves my home unread unless it's a duplicate or immensely boring.

Thanks for letting me join the blog, and if we do this again, count me in!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg

Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg, is a vivid, affecting memoir of a childhood and adolescence spent in Ukraine under the Soviet regime. Grimberg, now a rabbi in Canada, lived in the former Soviet Union until she was 15 and emigrated with her family to Indiana. The book is a memoir about growing up in a world that doesn't exist anymore.

Grimberg's narrative jumps back and forth through the years, from early childhood to her emigration. Grimberg frames her narrative in terms of a young girl and her family doing what they needed to do to survive- queueing up in long lines, working connections for that extra little luxury that made life bearable and worthwhile. The reader gets to know her parents, deeply in love with each other and devoted to their two children, Tina and her older sister Natasha; we meet her grandparents, especially Inna (always "Babushka Inna"), who changed her name from the Jewish Ginda to the more ethnically indeterminate Inna to fit in, and a small cast of friends and some family members who passed away before Grimberg was born.

Throughout the book the tone is warm and affectionate but not really sentimental; Grimberg depicts a loving family struggling to survive and is open about the trials of life as a Jewish family under the anti-Semitic, anti-religious Soviet regime, as well as her own lapses and failings. One of the most touching, albeit sad, anecdotes in the entirety of this slim volume is when Grimberg tells us the time she rode on the bus with Babushka Inna and heard Inna speaking Yiddish with another Jewish woman. After a brief altercation with another passenger they got off the bus; then little Tina told her grandmother never to speak Yiddish in public again, so ashamed was she of the attention it attracted. She speaks then of the heavy, loaded silence and shame that lived between her and Babushka Inna for the rest of the day, even as Babushka lovingly laid out Tina's nightclothes and put her to bed. I have Russian Jewish friends who escaped like Grimberg's family did and most of the time they don't like to talk about their more painful experiences, or only do in general terms, but this anecdote in particular brought something home to me about the damage done to families and to people by the Soviet system.

We also see some other aspects of Soviet life. Through her grandparents' story we see the terrible price the Soviet people paid for World War II, with nearly every family missing that entire generation of men; we see the role played by that generation of women, including Babushka Inna, as essential childrearers and neighborhood watchdogs. We see privations and little victories, such as when Grimberg is able to buy flowers for her mother for Women's Day even after the florist has sold out.

Grimberg draws herself as a basically happy, normal little girl and although her circumstances were grim, we have to remember that the story has a happy ending for the Grimberg family, however unlikely it may have seemed to them even up to the very moment they boarded the train for western Europe. I'm grateful for them that they made it, and grateful for being able to read this sweet, moving book. Out of Line gives some great insights into everyday life in a time and place that shaped a lot of people and is definitely worth checking out. Aimed at young adults, I think it would be a great read for teens (or anyone) interested in the former Soviet Union, in Jewish life there, and in the world that was swept away with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Bitton-Jackson, Livia. 1997. I Have Lived A Thousand Years.

I Have Lived A Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust is the memoir of Elli L. Friedmann. Born in Czechoslovakia, Elli along with her family were taken to Auschwitz when the ghettos were liquidated in 1944. The book covers the years 1944-1945, although it hints at what came before and what comes after. The book concludes with Elli and her remaining family members arriving in America in 1951.

Her prose is concise and powerful. As a child, she loved to write poems. And this is evident in her memoir. The imagery is strong; there is power in her words. The emotions resonate. When our story opens she is around the age of 13. Here is her description of when the Nazis came and her school was closed, "I weep and weep. I weep for my classroom, which is no longer my classroom. For the school that will never be my school again. I weep for my life, which will never be the same." A bit further on we read her description of what it was like to be shown where the family's treasure was buried. The unspoken words being that she may be the only one to survive. "I don't want to know the spot! I don't want to be the one to survive! I don't want to survive alone! Alone, I don't want to live. Oh God, I don't want to live if you don't! I don't want to know about anything! I don't want to know!"

Her descriptions are so powerful, so real. The way they are written, so straight-forward, so concise, instantly put me in her shoes. The people aren't just numbers, aren't just statistics, aren't just nameless, faceless strangers. They're real; they matter; their stories, their lives count.

This was a very powerful book for me. Elli's determination to survive, to ensure her mother's survival is so courageous, so incredible. The fact that hope and strength and courage and dignity can survive in the midst of such horror is amazing to me. Wonderfully amazing to me.

This book is definitely a must read.

The title of the book comes from the liberation scene. Elli and her brother and mother are all together. They are trying to survive until they can be liberated. Freedom is within their grasp, yet there is still danger and fear on the prowl. When they are liberated, Elli is taken for an old woman. They think she is a woman who is in her sixties, they're flabbergasted to learn that she is just fourteen years old. She says, "I am fourteen years old, and I have lived a thousand years." What great imagery.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hooray, It’s Passover by Leslie Kimmelman

Stars: ****

It's very straightforward about what happens during the holiday but is still told in a fun way with adorable illustrations by John Himmelman. Definitely recommend to teach your child what to expect during the Passover holidays or to teach non-Jewish children what Passover is all about.

Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn

Stars: *****
Unlike most books about the Holocaust, this one was written before WW II even started. It was originally written in Yiddish and was translated by Jeffrey Shandler into English which is how I read it.
Something else that makes this book different from all the others is that it was written for children in Jewish School in America to learn more about what was happening to kid’s their age in Europe. The author did a good job of putting in just the right amount of detail about the horrid things that happened to Jews. Enough to make it clear how things were but not too much so that the kids would go home scared and have nightmares. Written from a 3rd person point of view so that you get to hear what the thoughts are from both boys. I think this was a good choice.

Passover by Design by Susie Fishbein (Cookbook)

I'm not counting this for this challenge since I'm not sure if a cookbook is literature but I just wanted to link to my review since I figured some people doing this challenge might be interested in this book.

So here is my review.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

A review from pussreboots here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Detective Story by Imre Kertesz

detectivestory.JPGWritten in 1977 but published in the US for the first time this January, Detective Story by Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz tells the story of a group of men who, while working for an unnamed Latin American country's government, go too far to stop their political enemies. While I thought Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Kertesz was brilliant, I must admit I didn't get into this one too much. I'm willing to confess the fault might lie with the reader rather than the writer, however. Luckily, this one was short, but it didn't pack the same punch for me that Kaddish did.

1977 [2008 for the English translation], 112 pp.
Rating: 3/5


Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertesz

kaddish2.gifDefinition: Mourner's Kaddish expresses love of God and acceptance of God's will, even while the mourner is feeling sorrow over the death of a loved one. [See the actual English translation at the end of this review.]

Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz, survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, is a brilliant writer. As I was reading this short work, I found that I wanted to quote almost the entire book for this review. In the story, a man at a writer's conference explains to a colleague why he refused his ex-wife a child because he doesn't want to bring a child into a world where an Auschwitz is allowed to occur. In fact the very first word of the novel is "No," a reference to a question on whether or not he has children. He then expounds on his reasons for that decision, and on his childhood, his marriage, and his survival experiences.
"No!" something screamed, howled within me, immediately and forthwith, and it was only gradually, after many, many years had quieted it down, that my cramp gave way to a quiet but persistent pain, until slowly and maliciously, like a malignant sickness, a question began to take distinct shape with me: "Were you to be a dark-eyed little girl? With pale spots of scattered freckles around your little nose? Or a stubborn boy? With cheerful, hard eyes like blue-gray pebbbles?" Yes, my existence in the context of your potentiality.

I've had family members also question the wisdom of bringing children into the world, and the first time it was put to me, I didn't understand the reasoning behind this stance at all. Perhaps I was too naive then, though, because I do understand it now. I am a mother; I'm grateful to be a mother; but, unfortunately, there is much evil in this world, and while not my choice, I understand why people would question whether to subject their potential children to it.

1990, [1999 for English trans.], 95 pp.
Rating: 4.5/5

English Translation of the Mourner's Kaddish
May His illustrious name become increasingly great and holy
In the world that He created according to His will,
and may He establish His kingdom
In your lifetime and in your days
and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel
Speedily and soon. And let us say amen.

May His illustrious name be blessed always and forever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled
Honoured, raised up and acclaimed
be the name of the Holy one blessed be He
beyond every blessing hymn, praise and consolation
that is uttered in the world. And let us say amen.
May abundant peace from heaven, and life
Be upon us and upon all Israel.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Kanada by Eva Wiseman

kanada.JPG This is the story of 14 year-old Jutka's life before, during, and after World War II, with the three sections of the book dealing with those periods being titled Limbo, Hell, and Paradiso.

The story is heart-wrenching. We see how her friends and neighbors turn from loving her family to despising them. We see the horrors of the ghetto, Auschwitz, and the DP camps. Then we see Jutka and her friends struggle to find a new home for themselves when nothing is left of their old ones. While most want to relocate to Israel, Jutka dreams of being with her relatives in Canada.

The story is compelling, but I did find the writing to be a bit simplistic and choppy, thus the lower rating.

Kanada's author, Eva Wiseman, was born in Hungary and has based this book on her parents' and other friends' experiences during the war. She now lives in Winnipeg.

2006, 241 pp.
Rating: 3.5/5


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Always Remember Me

Russo, Marisabina. Always Remember Me.

It is hard to find books--particularly picture books--about the Holocaust and World War II that are appropriate for young audiences. ALWAYS REMEMBER ME: HOW ONE FAMILY SURVIVED WORLD WAR II is a great find indeed!

ALWAYS REMEMBER ME is a story within a story. Oma is sharing her family history with her young granddaughter, Rachel, as the two look through two photo albums. One photo album contains pictures of her life in Poland and Germany. These photos contain pictures that evoke happy memories of the grandmother's life (her childhood, her marriage, her motherhood)...but some of the later pictures in the book evoke sad memories of what happened when the Nazis took control of Germany. Fortunately, Oma and two of her daughters survive concentration camp (her oldest daughter had immigrated to America). The second photo album contains pictures of the family once they have moved to America to start their new lives.

The endpapers are designed as a scrapbook/photo album. Black and white photos (also sepia-toned photos) line the endpapers with white cursive captions identifying the people, places, and ages of the photographic subjects.

There is a five word glossary identifying Yiddish and German words used in the picture book, and there is a two-page afterward summarizing briefly Hitler's rise to power and the Holocaust.

In addition to being a great story/introduction to the Holocaust, I enjoy the celebration of family that ALWAYS REMEMBER ME embodies. It is a great story about how important it is to pass down family stories and keepsakes. I love the bond between Rachel and her grandmother.

The Diary of A Young Girl

Frank, Anne. 1952. The Diary of A Young Girl.

"You're reading that again?" That's what my mother said as she caught me reading Anne Frank. Like I haven't read anything but this one book in all these years. She's right. I have read Anne Frank's Diary of A Young Girl before. But some things are worth repeating. Diary of A Young Girl is one of them. The first time I read this book, I would have been in high school. Close enough to Anne's age to feel it--the drama of adolescence on top of extreme political and social upheaval. The Diary of A Young Girl captures both. The war. The threat of death. The threat of captivity. The threat of starvation and disease. But it also captures youth. What it means to be young, to be at that ever-awkward stage in life, in development. Always a me-in-the-making, never quite done finding out who you are and what you believe and what you want out of life. Anne could be any girl in any place and time. But because she was born a Jew. Because Hitler came to power. Her life--her perfectly ordinary life--was cut short.

The book begins in June of 1942. The last entry is in August of 1944. In these two years, these two turbulent years, Anne and her family and several other people as well all go into hiding in the Secret Annexe. Mr. and Mrs. Frank. Margot, the older sister. Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. Their son Peter. And Mr. Dussel. Eight people. Cramped living conditions. This isn't reality tv. This is life and death. Yes, every person gets super-cranky and super-sensitive. But wouldn't you?

The reader gets a glimpse into the lives of real people through the eyes of one very young sometimes-mature, sometimes-immature girl. Anne Frank. Very famous now because of her diary. But just then--at the moment--one very ordinary girl with a natural desire to write a diary. I think most kids (or teens) at one time or another try their hand at keeping journals. Though perhaps now, blogging has replaced all that. Diaries are intimate, personal, private. Each entry is a snapshot into that one day, that one hour, that one moment. When you're young, (and even when you're older and supposedly all grown up) your mood, your outlook changes moment by moment, day by day. Happy one minute, miserable the next. Such is the case with Anne. Personally, I'm surprised that Anne had as many happy moments, contented moments, grateful moment in the Annexe as she did. I think it would only be natural to be unhappy, scared, miserable, depressed. Living in cramped quarters with people you dislike, people you disagree with, not being able to go outside, to go anywhere you want. Not having the freedom to move, to make noise when you want. To always be on alert. To always worry about the threat of discovery, the threat of capture, the threat of bombs blowing you to bits. High stress. Very high stress.

But this isn't just a book about war, about being Jewish, about being a victim. This book is so much more than that. It's a book about growing up. A book about changing from a girl into a young woman with hopes and dreams and fears and desires. It's a book about being that age. That extremely awkward stage of life. My mom thought all people of that age should be shipped off to junior high island until they grew out of it. That moody, I-hate-you, you-don't-understand-me stage. Anne was a work-in-progress. There's no doubt about it. When we first meet her, she's entering that phase of life. She doesn't get along with her mother. At all. She feels completely disconnected from her. Misunderstood. Unloved. Unwanted. Unappreciated. And her relationship with her father is better, but not perfect. Sometimes she feels the disconnect with him too. And her sister. She feels that her parents love her sister more. That her sister gets all the praise, the love, the positive attention. And she feels that she gets attacked, bombarded with negative attention--lectures, lectures, more lectures. Everyone is always out-to-get-her. But though this does seem to be Anne's story, Anne's predicament, by the second half of the book, Anne is growing, changing, maturing. She looks back over past entries and realizes that things are different, things have changed. And she realizes that most of the changes were in her. She is beginning to build, to establish a better relationship with her family. She is beginning to get comfortable in her own skin.

Anne is someone I think we all can relate to in a way. Anne was just a girl. A girl with interests and hobbies. Likes and dislikes. She could be anybody.

The Diary of A Young Girl was originally published in Holland in 1947. It was soon translated into other languages, including English, and printed in the United States. 1952 is the first publication date for the United States. Almost from the very beginning, it was recognized as a good book, a powerful book, a book worthy of time and attention and respect. But it's not without its enemies.

Though I'll never in a million years understand the mindset of those that challenge books, I'll never ever ever understand why Diary of A Young Girl is one of their targets. I just don't understand it. Can't understand it. One challenge brought against the book stated that it was pornographic. How??? Why??? Fortunately, the challenge failed, and the book stayed on the shelves. I suppose pornography is subjective. But a young girl writing about her period is so not pornographic! A young girl writing about her breasts developing? Not pornographic. A young girl writing about her first kiss? Not pornographic. There is no talk, no hint of sex in the book. Though Anne spends the last part of the book making out with Peter, the son of the Van Daans. But it's not pornographic in the slightest. Not unless it's the mention of Anne reading a book where there is mention of a woman selling her body. Or perhaps it is the conversation about the cat's male organs that is so offensive to folks? Whether the cat is a tom cat.

I could go on for hours about all the suffering the war has brought, but then I would only make myself more dejected. There is nothing we can do but wait as calmly as we can till the misery comes to an end. Jews and Christians wait, the whole earth waits, and there are many who wait for death. (64)

I see the eight of us with our "Secret Annexe" as if we were a little piece of blue heaven, surrounded by heavy black rain clouds. The round, clearly defined spot where we stand is still safe, but the clouds gather more closely about us and the circle which separates us from the approaching danger closes more and more tightly. (115)

But seriously, it would seem quite funny ten years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here. Although I tell you [the diary] a lot, still even so, you only know very little of our lives. (192)

And if I haven't any talent for writing books or newspaper articles, well, then I can always write for myself. . . I want to go on living after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me. I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the great question, will I ever be able to write anything great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much. (197)

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I finished the Jewish Literature Challenge today. My post with links to all reviews is here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Megillat Esther

Happy Purim!

For my next entry in the Jewish Literature Challenge series, I chose a graphic novel-style interpretation of the Megilla, the story of how Queen Esther saved the Jews from slaughter by King Achashverosh and his advisor, Haman, in ancient Persia, forming the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim, which begins tomorrow. Not your standard children's-book interpretation, this version of Esther's story is full of intrigue, conspiracies and reversals, not the least of which is the physical reversal of the text which occurs halfway through. At this point, the reader needs to flip the book over and read it right to left, all the better for the Hebrew but possibly jarring for readers unfamiliar with reading Hebrew or (in my case) Japanese manga. But I digress.

This Megillat Esther is a treasure, a beautiful and thoughtful retelling of the Book of Esther. The story is told in English and beautifully-lettered Hebrew, and includes rabbinic footnotes and a bibliography, as well as a section explaining the importance of citations and explaining the term midrash, the orally-told stories that expand on the Hebrew Bible. This section seems aimed at children, but this is no children's book. Waldman's rich, detailed black and white illustrations reward careful attention and a slow, deliberate pace, and there is some racy sexual content and innuendo that would make me hesitate to include this volume in a library collection for children, although it would be wonderful for adults who can be persuaded to read a "comic book."

Waldman's Megillat Esther is a real treat. I had a hard time tracking down a copy through my local public library system, but it's worth a read, at Purim time or anytime.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Cage

Sender, Ruth Minsky. 1986. The Cage.

The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender is one of the most outstanding Holocaust memoirs I've ever read. The narrative is told loosely through a framework. That is in the first chapter, Ruth Minsky Sender begins her narrative by setting it in the present day (or what would have been the present day when it was being written). She frames her story around questions her children asked about why they had no grandparents, no cousins, no extended family, etc. This, I believe, is quite effective in drawing you into the story. Of making you see the big picture.

Nancy looks at me, bewildered. "Why did they let them do it? Why didn't people stop them?"
Why did they let them do it? Why did they let them do it? It echoes in my ears. Many voices ring in my ears. Voices I have heard before. They are all calling, Why? Why? Why did they let them do it?
I hear Mama's voice, filled with hope. A world full of people will not be silent. We will not perish in vain. She was so sure. But she perished, and the world was silent.
Tears fall down my face. Nancy's soft hands wipe them away. "But, Mommy, it could not happen here. Our neighbors, our friends, they would help."
Suddenly it is 1939 again. (4)
In simple but haunting prose, the narrative tells the story of one girl's survival. Riva, our narrator, is a child-soon-to-be-a-woman growing up in Lodz, Poland. Her world changes, her future changes when the Nazis invade Poland. Friends? Neighbors? Vanish overnight it seems. You see, it's not safe to be 'Polish' anymore...better to be German. To blend in with the oppressors. To take up their mantras. To join with them side by side. To pursue the destruction of the Jewish race. There is no one to stand up for the Polish Jews. (Or should I say there are few if any that are willing to make such a stand.) The story of Riva and her family--her mother, her brothers, her sisters, is powerful.

Riva finds her strength in poetry. You might could even say that poetry saves her life in more ways than one. This is her story.

Camp Mittelsteine, Germany
September 23, 1944
Riva Minska, Number 55082.

When my tormented heart can't take any more
The grief within rips it apart;
My tears flow freely--they can't be restrained
I reach for my notebook--my friend.
I speak to my friend of my sorrow
I share my anger, my pain.
I speak to my friend of tomorrow
Of a future we'll build once again!
The pillars I build for the future to come,
I knock down and build once again.
I share all my dreams, share my hopes with my friend
Share the pain that is filling my heart. (178)
First sentence: Warm rays of sunshine fill the house, mixed with the sweet smell of lilac in full bloom.
Last sentence: As long as there is life, there is hope.
245 pages

Such a Prince, by Daniel Bar-el

Such a Prince, a new picture book for elementary-school children by Dan Bar-el, is a lively retelling of the "three peaches folktale about a sick princess who needs three perfect peaches to get well. In return for providing the peaches, her father, the king, promises the girl's hand in marriage. This version is narrated by Libby Gaborchik, a fuss-budget little fairy who takes a liking to a skinny, feckless young man named Marvin and helps him win the princess.

The book is a joy from start to finish. The story is funny, the characters are recognizable fairy-tale types used perfectly. My favorite character is the unabashedly loud-mouthed, assertive Princess Vera, who even from her sickbed will express herself in quite the forthright manner. And the pictures! The guache and colored-pencil pictures are appealing, colorful and complement the fast-paced, rolly-poly story. Even the endpapers, depicting bunnies bouncing here and there, contribute to the overall atmosphere of hyperkinetic action.

When I first read the book silently, I enjoyed the humor and the beautiful, vibrant illustrations. But it really came to life when I read it out loud- Libby's playful, irreverent tone, only a little sarcastic at times, is a great match to the bouncy, bright pictures, and sounds great when spoken. The lively Yiddish-inspired syntax is to blame. Even without using a single Yiddish word Bar-el does a great job of capturing the uniquely expressive sound of Yiddish-inflected English and it's this trait that lends the book so beautifully to being read aloud. So read it, enjoy it, have fun with it, and read it out loud- though you might have to ham it up a little to really do it justice!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Bagels from Benny

Bagels from Benny is a very sweet picture book that tells the story of Benny, a little boy who loves to help out at his grandfather's bakery and wants to find a way to thank God for his grandfather's wonderful bagels. He hits upon the idea of leaving a bag of bagels in his synagogue's ark- where the Torah is kept- because it just seems sensible to leave a gift for God in with His book. A poor man who comes to pray finds the bagels- and believes they are from God. When Benny's grandfather finds out what Benny has been doing with his bagels, grandfather and grandson share an important lesson about the transformational power of kindness and generosity. It's a really lovely story with an important lesson, based on an ancient Jewish legend from Spain. Petricic's illustrations in watercolor and pencil are by turns funny and beautiful and echo the emotional tones well. It won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in 2003. I love Bagels from Benny!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mozart Question

Morpurgo, Michael. 2008. The Mozart Question.

Don't let appearances deceive you. This book may not look like much. It's a small book after all. But it can pack a "wow" with the best of them. It's not a novel. It's not a picture book. It's definitely for older readers--upper elementary on up. What is it about? Well, even the book starts in a roundabout way.
The question I am most often asked is always easy enough to answer. Question: How did you get started as a writer? Answer: Strangely enough, by asking someone almost exactly that very same question, which I was only able to ask in the first place by receiving a dose of extraordinarily good fortune. I had better explain.
The Mozart Question is a story within a story. The story is framed around that of a reporter--a new reporter hoping for her big break--interviewing a famous musician. The inside story is that of the musician. It is that story that in my opinion is able to pack quite a wow.

Lesley is a new reporter. She's only worked at the paper for a little over three weeks. But when her boss is unable to get the story--get the interview--due to a skiing accident, Lesley takes her place. Her job? To go to the home of Paolo Levi. Her instructions: Don't mess up! And above all else DO NOT ASK HIM THE MOZART QUESTION. The problem? She doesn't know what "the Mozart question" is. So she can only hope that she doesn't ask it accidentally. When she arrives, he tells her she may ask one question. Nervous she goes for it heart and soul, "I wonder if you'd mind telling me how you got started. I mean, what made you pick up a violin and play that first time?" His answer stuns her, wows her if you will.

I hope you'll read The Mozart Question yourself so you can see just how magical this short, little book really is.

Another (recent) review of The Mozart Question.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Country: Australia
Year: 2005
Pages: 552
Rating: 5 out of 5

First sentence:
 First the colors.

You can find the complete review here.

What I thought: I can not come up with the words to describe this book that would do it justice. It is that good. It is written from the unique perspective of Death, a wry, frank, and compassionate character who sees moments in shades of color: The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness. (p.12). We learn how Death comes to know the book thief and her story. It is an emotionally draining read. 

Towards the end, I was reading parts out loud to my daughter when she was fussy, so that I could calm her down and try to finish the book at the same time. I had to stop, I literally could not read the story out loud without crying. 

There is plenty of foreshadow. I know what is going to happen. I know how it is going to end. And I still sobbed through the last few chapters. Yet, a narrative filled with death and despair, one of the overarching themes is that of hope and love. There is so much love in this story, and overflows from the pages to the reader. 

And, always a favorite for bibliophiles, it is very much a story about words: 

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half. 
Then a chapter.
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn't be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. 
What good were the words?
She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. "What good are the words?"(p.521)

I was particularly captured by the story within a story - the writings and illustrations of Max, the Jew hidden in the basement. His short story, The Word Shaker, could easily be a stand alone children's book. The book is marketed as young adult fiction, but is just as enjoyable and meaningful for adults.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I Will Plant You A Lilac Tree

Hillman, Laura. 2005. I Will Plant You A Lilac Tree.

"We are going to Brunnlitz, to Oskar Schindler's camp!" I recall the shouts of joy that filled the barrack at Plaszow. But the terrible place where I now stand is not that hoped-for refuge. It is Auschwitz. (1)

I Will Plant You A Lilac Tree is a memoir of one of the women saved by Oskar Schindler. Hannelore Wolff. Except for the two-page prologue, the book is a chronological account of Hannelore's life in Nazi Germany. The book opens with her attending a Jewish boarding school in Berlin. Since Hitler had come to power, it was dangerous for Jews to walk on public streets. In spite of the risk we walked along a tree-lined avenue in a suburb of Berlin, the ever-present yellow Stars of David sewn to our jackets. (3) One day she receives a letter from her mother with the news that her father has been taken by the Nazis and has died. Weeks later she receives another letter. A letter saying that her mother and two brothers will be deported to the East on May 8, 1942. In what could only be perceived as foolish-yet-brave behavior, Hannelore writes a letter to the Nazis saying that she wishes to be deported along with her family. They grant it. Now this family of four is facing the great unknown as they board a train that could lead them--probably will lead them--to their deaths.

Hannelore's story isn't always easy to read. Let's see if I can phrase this better. Those readers who aren't well-versed in Holocaust memoirs may find it difficult to read. The way the Jews are treated is despicable. It is callous. Hannelore's story is an account of some of the wrongs she faced, some of the wrongs she witnessed. But it is also a story of courage, of hope, of strength in a time of great despair. While sometimes surviving was a matter of luck--of chance--part of it had to do with will as well. Those that lost the will to live, those that gave up hope, those that gave in to despair... Starvation. Disease. Nazis. The Nazis were responsible either directly or indirectly for so many deaths. Hannelore's story of how she survived the various camps and came to be one of the lucky few saved by Schindler is amazing and fascinating and in places quite heartbreaking.

But this memoir isn't just a testament of survival, and it isn't just an account of the wrongs against the Jewish people. It is a love story as well, a story of how love can be found even in the darkest places, the most despairing times. A story of how one young man and one young woman found hope and love in each other. A story of how that love helped them endure.

I definitely recommend this one.

243 pages.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Night by Elie Wiesel

Book coverReview of Book: Night
Author: Elie Wiesel

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In Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel's memoir Night, a scholarly, pious teenager is wracked with guilt at having survived the horror of the Holocaust and the genocidal campaign that consumed his family. His memories of the nightmare world of the death camps present him with an intolerable question: how can the God he once so fervently believed in have allowed these monstrous events to occur? There are no easy answers in this harrowing book, which probes life's essential riddles with the lucid anguish only great literature achieves. It marks the crucial first step in Wiesel's lifelong project to bear witness for those who died.


This book gave me chills. All I can say about it is... Wow. I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It depicts the world that we are, again, about to enter. Since there aren't enough words to accurately define how I felt about this book, I'll let past reviews speak of Night for me.

This book deserves a ten. If I could, I'd offer it an infinity.


What Others Said About the Book

"...a slim volume of terrifying power [and] a remarkable closeup of one boy's tragedy..." - Gertrude Samuels, The New York Times Book Review

"...There is a unique quality in the experiences of a child in hell... His book deserves to be read by everyone who is deeply concerned about the future of civilization." - Saturday Review

"There is no superfluous flesh on this gaunt and powerful narrative... It is a profound spiritual document, an affirmation by negation." - The New York Herald Tribune Books

"A striking narrative... read it if you dare." - Jubilee: a magazine of the Church

"Wiesel reminds us of the spiritual suffering and sacrifice no man can measure... but to the believer, to the Christian, he penetrates with special force." - James Finn, Commonweal

To view my list, Click here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Entertainer and the Dybbuk

The Entertainer and the Dybbuk by Sid Fleischman won the 2008 Sydney Taylor Book Award in the category of books for older readers. Fleischman won the Newbery in 1987 for The Whipping Boy. Set in the late 1940s, The Entertainer and the Dybbuk is the story of an American ventriloquist, the Great Freddie, who while on his tour of Europe becomes haunted or possessed by the spirit of a Jewish child slain in the Holocaust. This boy, Avrom Amos Poliakov, now a dybbuk or spirit, has unfinished business and he needs this former American soldier's help to be at peace. Now inhabited by this friendly, often sarcastic, mournful soul, his act has become better than ever. The dybbuk is winning the hearts of the crowds. The crowds of course don't realize that this isn't all an act put on by The Great Freddie. He's gone almost overnight from a mediocre-at-best performer to a real crowd-drawing attraction. But being possessed isn't all fun, the dybbuk means business. And he'll stop at nothing to accomplish his goals.

The book is very good, and I definitely recommend it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Something From Nothing by Phoebe Giilman

Stars: ****
Basic storyline is a child who has a well-loved blue blankie. It gets so worn out that the mom says it has to go but Grandpa makes it into a coat. Then it wears out and mom says it has to go and Grandpa saves it once again by making it into a vest. This continues all the way to a button.

Although I’ve seen this idea before (can't find the name of the book. This one was read and I think a bathrobe first,) this one is nicely written with beautiful illustrations. Also if you look closely, at the bottom of the page mice are shown in the space below the house and they are using the scraps cut off the blankie/coat/vest etc… to make their own clothes. By the end of the book. All the mice are clothed in blue.

One thing that makes this book better than any others I’ve seen with this idea is the ending. I don’t like writing spoilers, even for picture books, so I won’t tell you exactly what happens but it’s a good ending.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Castle on Hester Street - Linda Heller

Title: The Castle on Hester Street
Author: Linda Heller (illustrated by Boris Kulikov)
Country: America
Year: 1982
Rating: 5 of 5

First sentence: One day while Julie was visiting her grandparents, her grandfather said, "Did I ever tell you about my good friend Moishe?"

This a cute story about a grandfather's tall tales of the family's immigration from Russia to America. By countering grandpa's stories of castles and moons made of matzoh, with grandma's explanations of how things really were, Linda Heller has created a gem of a book in teaching kids about the experience of immigration. It's an endearing story that all ages could enjoy.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

All-of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Originally published in 1951, Sydney Taylor's novel, All of A Kind Family, is set in New York City around 1912. The family consists of a mom, a dad, and five "step and stair" daughters. (They range in age from twelve to four.) The book is about the adventures the five sisters have together. It's definitely not your typical book if you're judging it by modern standards. There is less plot, for one thing, but the charm--or part of the charm--is in the individual stories, the episodes. The fact that it is more a compilation of loosely connected stories masquerading as a novel isn't a problem in my opinion. (But I'm curious what modern children would make of it all???)

The book does have its charms. There's no doubt about that. And one of the things I do like about the book is the fact that it highlights so many different aspects of being Jewish. For example, I haven't come across too many fiction novels (or picture books for that matter) that show families celebrating Purim and Succos. (These aren't the only celebrations by any means.) It was just interesting to see these aspects of culture and religion interwoven with the typical and traditional threads of family life and social life--going to school, going to the library, going to the beach, going shopping, getting a new baby, etc.

Part of me is curious as to how modern readers would respond to this novel and others like it. Would it be considered too old fashioned? Too dated? Too boring? While I can appreciate it the novel as an adult, I'm not sure what I would have thought of it as a child.

For example, the chapter that is really "out there" for me is how the mother tricks the children into doing housework. The chapter is called "Dusting is Fun." And it doesn't matter if you're 8 or 9 or 29, you KNOW that that sentence is a lie and always will be a lie. The mother successfully tricks her five children into playing a game "find the buttons while you dust" to get them to do their least favorite chore each week. I don't buy it. It's not like finding a button is a great reward. It's not like they get to keep the button. It's not like they can trade the buttons for a penny or two to keep. They're just finding the same buttons over and over again each week and making it an-ever-so-fun game. I just don't buy it at all.

However, the rest of the chapters do work for me for the most part.

First sentence: "That slowpoke Sarah!" Henny cried. "She's making us late!" Mama's girls were going to the library, and Henny was impatient.

It is 189 pages.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Living A Jewish Life - Anita Diamant

Title: Living A Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families (2nd ed.)
Author: Anita Diamant
Country: USA
Year: 2007 (1st ed. 1991)
Rating: 5 of 5
Pages: 308
Happy Tu B'Shvat!!!

Tu B'Shvat, a minor Jewish holiday, is the New Year for the Trees, and is commonly celebrated by planting trees and eating fruits and nuts. It is also known as Jewish Arbor Day. Which leads into the latest book that I finished, Living A Jewish Life by Anita Diamant.

Although a good book for anyone who is interested in learning more about liberal Judaism, this book is most beneficial to exactly what we are: a young Jewish family looking to incorporate more rituals and traditions into our home life. 

Living A Jewish Life provides thorough explanations to many things that remain somewhat elusive to me, a non-Jew raising a Jewish child: the essence of Shabbat and how to include it in your home life, the Jewish calendar and holidays, Jewish community organizations and education. and how to make (and stick) to Jewish choices when other aspects of life interfere (ie. soccer practice on Shabbat).  I especially appreciate the fact that Anita Diamant writes with an assumption that you do not know a lof of Hebrew, and provides a very useful glossary in the back and detailed explanations for the Hebrew she does use.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief.

The Book Thief may just be the hardest book I've ever tried to review. It is beautiful. Though it can be ugly. It is intense. It is powerful. It is memorable. The first thing you should know about The Book Thief? It is narrated by Death. This is fitting in many ways since the setting is Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Death is the narrator, and he never lets you forget it. But there are many players--many characters--in the story that Death is relating to his audience all these years later. One of them is a girl, Liesel, and is known by Death as 'the book thief.' These thefts provide some structure to the text. (The structure is one of the odd things about the Book Thief. It isn't chronological. Death doesn't tell a story traditionally. He has his own way of jazzing it up, arranging it so it suits his needs and purposes.) The language, the style, is unique. I think it is written in such a way that you either really love it or you really don't. (It's written in such a way that you could almost open it to any page, and find a sentence or two or a whole paragraph that you want to just lift out and let resonate with you for a time.)

This is how it begins:

First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. Here is a small fact: you are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. (3)

It continues:

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me, it's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. As I've been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision--to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors. Still it's possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need a distraction from? Which brings me to my next point. It's the leftover humans. The survivors. They're the ones I can't stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors--an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fish fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. (4-5)

Before the story gets underway, he invites the reader along for the journey:

Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt, an immense leap of an attempt--to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I'll show you something. (14-15)

There is depth, substance, to these words, to this story. The descriptions. The details. The powerful sway of the words whether they're describing the beauty of love and family and friendship or capturing the ugly heaviness of hate, anger, and death. It's not an easy story to read. It's full of emotions. It's full of words. It's a book that at it's very heart and soul captures humanity in all its depths--the good, the bad, the ugly. Here is a book that captures what it means to be human.
One of the most memorable passages for me (224-236), and I hope this isn't much of a spoiler--is the hand drawn--hand written--portion written by "Max" for Liesel. I find it so powerful in its simplicity. So hauntingly beautiful. There is a second story specially written for Liesel by Max, this second one is found on pps 445-450. This is how that one begins, "There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life: 1) He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. 2) He would make himself a small, strange mustache. 3) He would one day rule the world." (445)