BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Storm – by Sebastian Junger

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Title: The Perfect Storm
Author: Sebastian Junger
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Adventure
First published: 1997
Finished reading: June 17th 2015
Pages: 248
Rating 3

“How do men act on a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whisky? Do they cry?”

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I know that Sebastian Junger wrote The Perfect Storm as a non fiction story and he wanted to incorporate as many facts as possible. I really appreciate his effort and I can’t deny the story is interesting, but with all the different facts about fishing it was hard to stay focused on the main story. It took quite some effort to keep reading all those details about fishing boats; while it is interesting, it can get a bit monotone. I did appreciate the many historical facts in The Perfect Storm, but the story itself didn’t seem to have a logical order and that made it quite hard to read. The prose is solid and it shows that Sebastian Junger really made an effort in trying to make the story more readable. It is quite an interesting story, but I guess someone who is really interested in fishing and history would probably enjoy this book a lot better than I did.

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This non fiction story will tell you all about the history of sea fishing and what went wrong during the trip of the Andrea Gail back in October 1991. Working on the fishing boats has never been an easy or safe job, and a lot of fishermen have lost their lives to the sea. Mother nature can be cruel and the sea can have a tremendous force that is beyond anyone’s control… And a storm can arrive when you least expect it. The crew of the Andrea Gail will soon find out just that… As the author relates what happened before and during those last days at sea.

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It’s not like The Perfect Storm isn’t an interesting story and I enjoyed reading part of it, but after a while it became repetitive and it was hard to stay focused. I know it’s a non fiction story and I normally enjoy reading that genre, but I guess it didn’t help I’m not all that interested in sea fishing. Maybe if the story would have been told chronologically it would have been easier to stay focused… For now it was a struggle to reach the final page. If you are interested in fishing and sea adventures, you will probably like this one. If not, the movie might be a good alternative… I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard good things about it.

BOOK REVIEW: Twelve Years A Slave – by Solomon Northup

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Title: Twelve Years A Slave
Author: Solomon Northup
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Memoir
First published: 1853
Finished reading: December 26th 2014
Pages: 288
Rating 4

“Life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.”

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This book was a gift of a friend who knows I always like reading historical books, whether fiction or non fiction. Twelve Years A Slave is not the first book about slavery that I’ve read, but without doubt it is one of the more powerful once. In this memoir Solomon Northup, born a free man, tells us about how he was kidnapped, then forced into slavery during twelve long years and finally rescued from such fate. It’s not an easy read and at times a bit slow in pace, but the message is powerful enough to keep reading. I think most people already suspect how slaves were treated in Southern USA back in those days, but actually reading a testimony makes it hard to ignore such inhumane treatment that was used on black slaves. Like Northup said in his book, it was part of the culture and most slave owners didn’t know any better, but still… Even humane masters as Ford were still seeing slaves as property and forced them to work for them. A heavy, but strong book and definitely recommended to those who are interested in reading more about the life of slaves.

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Solomon Northup was born a free man in the state of New York. He got married, had some children and were able to coope by working hard. Even in the free states, work for black men was harder to find, but both Solomon and his wife were creative enough to scrape together an income. Solomon plays the violin, and when to gentlemen invite him to travel with them to Washington with the promise of money, he quickly agrees to join them. Unfortunately, they deceived him and Solomon was kidnapped, severely beaten and then sold into slavery in 1841. Once crossing the border to the Southern States, he knew that nobody would believe he was a free man without his papers. And those who did, would most likely kill him rather than set him free. So he kept his mouth shut and during twelve years played the role of Platt the slave on different plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon/Platt had different owners during those twelve years and while some, like master Ford, treated him at least with humanity, others were mere brutes and unnecessarily cruel. They actually try to kill him various times when he refuses to be humiliated too much, and owes his life to more humane southerners. Solomon tells us the story of when he manages to escape against all odds and arrive safely back at master Ford’s land, who then protects him from harm. Solomon first works at the cotton plantation, and later is hired to sugar cane plantations as he is way more productive at the latter. He help building new houses and other useful buildings and stands out for his cleverness and violin skills. And then finally he meets the right man that will help him reclaim his freedom…

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If you are interested in reading more about the life of slaves during the years of slavery in Southern USA, Twelve Years A Slave is without doubt a must read. This is not just another testimony written by a slave, in this memoir we see the facts through the eyes of a free man that was forced into slavery. That and the fact that Solomon Northup clearly was an educated man, makes this book that much more powerful. The prose is not always easy to read, but the message makes up for it. Plus, this book was written back in 1853…

BOOK REVIEW: Portrait Of A Killer – by Patricia Cornwell

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Title: Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper – Case Closed
Author: Patricia Cornwell
Genre: History, Non Fiction, True Crime
First published: 2002
Finished Reading: June 12th 2014
Pages: 383
Rating 2,5

“And suddenly the world was filled with wooden faces and flat voices – and, you were alone.”

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I have to admit that before I started reading Portrait Of A KillerI didn’t know much more about the Jack The Ripper case other than that he was quite a violent serial killer and mostly attacked prostitutes. It is also the first time I’ve read something by Patricia Cornwell, and I have the feeling this nonfiction investigation of the 19th century killer didn’t show me a complete image of Cornwell as a writer. Although the story started interesting, I soon started wondering whether the subtitle Jack The Ripper – Case Closed would have been a bit of an exaggeration. I couldn’t help but feel the evidence she presented was mostly circumstantial and the explanations sometimes quite shaky while she was trying to convince the reader the true identity of Jack The Ripper: a famous painter called Walter Sickert. Cornwell used modern technology when trying to find more physical evidence to build her case, but most results came back inconclusive. And after finishing Portrait Of A Killer, I don’t think Walter Sickert would have ever been convicted of the murders if she presented the case as described in her book to court. Yet another big Ha Ha from our fiend Jack The Ripper…

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The story about the life in Victorian England and France itself was quite interesting. Cornwell was able to give us an insight into the life as it would have been like during the 19th century. In describing the lives of Sickert, the various victims and the cops trying to find the killer, we were able to see how different social classes lived before, during and after the killings taking place in 1888-1889. The killings are brutal and close to butchery, and it is scary to even think that a human being would be able to afflict that kind of damage without feeling remorse. But then again, Jack The Ripper was nothing less than a monster, although a brilliant one.

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I just wished Cornwell would have kept her opinion slightly to herself instead of trying to force the identity of Jack The Ripper on us. Sure, after all she told about Walter Sickert he definitely looks suspicious. But without accompanying evidence, her claim of whodunnit for me wasn’t rightfully made. Or at least not when selling the book as a nonfiction investigation. Sickert might have done it, but the facts are more than a hunderd years old, and for now there is no way to be certain. I would go for reasonable doubt, not case closed.

If you want to learn a bit more of the lives of the victims and Walter Sickert, this still might be an interesting read. Just beware of the circumstancial evidence and be sure to regularly take a step back and look critically at the conclusions Cornwell draws. I don’t think this was the best example of her work though. I will be reading one of the Kay Scarpetta novels by the same author lined up in my TBR list in the near future so I can see what her fiction writing is like. As for Portrait Of A Killer, for me it’s book closed and locked away…

BOOK REVIEW: The Pianist – by Władysław Szpilman

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Title: The Pianist
Author: Władysław Szpilman
Genre: Non Fiction, WWII, History, Memoir
First published: 1946
Finished reading: March 12th 2014
Pages: 224
(Originally written in Polish: Śmierć Miasta)

Rating 5

“And now I was lonelier, I supposed, than anyone else in the world. Even Defoe’s creation, Robinson Crusoe, the prototype of the ideal solitary, could hope to meet another human being. Crusoe cheered himself by thinking that such a thing could happen any day, and it kept him going. But if any of the people now around me came near I would need to run for it and hide in mortal terror. I had to be alone, entirely alone, if I wanted to live.”

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How to rate a book that contains such a tragic and above all true story of a man who survived the Holocaust against all odds? A story about a Jewish pianist who unsuccesfully tried to save his family, resisted the Nazi’s and managed to stay alive under impossible conditions during the Second World War… It is incredible how a human being is capable of dealing with such an amount of physical and mental torture, and I have great respect for both Wladyslaw Szpilman and all other victims of the Holocaust. What makes his story even more special is that it was written right after the war in 1946, while other works appeared only many years after. Not long after Szpilman published his story, the Polish government tried to ‘hide’ the evidence of the terrible facts and his story wasn’t republished until the nineties. If you haven’t read The Pianist yet, I suggest you do. It gives you a great impression on how it was like for the Jews during the Second World War.

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Wladyslaw Szpilman is a gifted pianist who plays for the Polish radio and he is known by many. He is also a Jew and forced to live in the ghetto with his family when the Germans take over Warsaw. Szpilman shows us the deteriorating situation within the ghetto. The people are living under the mercy of the German soldiers, who appear not to have any of that mercy left and kill people at random. The situation becomes more violent every day and soon transports to supposedly work camps are to be taken place. But in fact they are transports to the infamous gas chambers, and Szpilman wasn’t able to save his family from that same horrendous fate.

Being a populair pianist he was able to save himself though. He escaped and with the help of various faithful friends he hid successfully from the Germans. He had to change his hiding place various times, and it seemed that his intuition saved his life more than once. Being on the border of death, Szpilman actually tried to commit suicide once with the reason that he prefered taking strong sleeping pills over falling into the hands of the Germans. But fortunately for him the pills weren’t strong enough to kill him, even though his body was weak from the lack of food and the terrible situation he was in for so long already. He managed to escape yet again and found another place to hide. In that last hiding place is where two unlikely people met, a person who would save Szpilman’s life for a last time before the war was over. A German officer named Wilm Hosenfeld discovered him at the house Szpilman was hiding, but decided to save his life and even provided him with food and prevented him freezing to death.

Pieces of Wilm’s journal are included into the memoir of the pianist, and show us a different angle of the German officers. Hosenfeld doesn’t approve with the situation at all, but isn’t able to do anything about it by himself. He did save various Jews from their terrible fate though, and Szpilman was one of them. Unfortunately the Soviets caught Hosenfeld towards the end of the war and still imprisoned he died a few years later. Szpilman tried to get him free, but was never able to locate the man that helped him survive…

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The Pianist is a very strong read and without doubt recommended to those who are interested in the Second World War and Jewish memoirs. Szpilman‘s story is both heartbreaking and mindblowing, and one of my favorite reads this year. Don’t forget to watch the movie version directed by Roman Polanski if you haven’t; it is just as powerful as the novel!

BOOK REVIEW: Schindler’s List – by Thomas Keneally

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Title: Schindler’s List
Author: Thomas Keneally
Genre: History, Non Fiction, WWII, Classics
First published: October 18th 1982
Finished reading: February 14th 2014
Pages: 400
(Original title: ‘Schindler’s Ark’)
Rating 4

“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

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Schindler’s List is to be considered a classic and definitely worth reading, especially if you are interested in the history of the Second World War. I already read this novel before in high school, and I’ve seen the movie as well. But since it has been a while, I decided to read it again. I must admit that the movie moved me more than the book, which seemed a bit ‘dry’ at certain points. But still the story of Oskar Schindler and his Schindlerjuden will surely both shock and amaze you.

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The novel tells us the story of how Oskar Schindler was able to save over one thousand Jews of a horrible death during the Second World War. It is a true story, which makes it that much more impressive. Schindler is a German industrialist who decided to start a factory with mostly Jewish workers, and thereby saving them of being send to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz. He encounters all kind of problems on the way and various people try to stop him, but the charmant Schindler is able to convince them all of the importance of his factory. It’s a story of heroes, tragedies, violence, hope. Families ripped apart by the Holocaust, others brought together again against all odds… And Schindler was there to protect his Schindlerjuden until the very end.

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Schindler’s List is an impressive story of how one person can make a difference in so many lives in such a difficult situation. About a man who decided to go against the rules of the Nazi’s and do what he thought was just. A definite must read if you ask me!

BOOK REVIEW: The Bookseller Of Kabul – by Asne Seierstad

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Title: The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Asne Seierstad
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir, History
First published: 2003
Finished reading: May 19th 2013
Pages: 276

Rating 2

“What the sounds and smells do not divulge, gossip supplies. It spreads like wildfire in the neighborhood, where everyone is watching one another’s morals.”

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I’m not sure what to think of this one. After having read works of Khaled Hosseini, this interpretation of life in Afghanistan doesn’t seem that believable to me. Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who spent four months living with an Afghan family in Kabul. She then (in my opinion) makes the mistake to tell us a story of the bookseller Sultan Khan and his family based on her own rather colored observations. That alone maybe isn’t that bad, but she wrote herself out of the story and wants to make us to believe everything she wrote is an exact representation of the family life of the Khan family. And that honestly I cannot believe. She only spent four months with the family, and she was only able to talk to the only three members who know the English language. So how on earth would she be able to understand and know the feelings of a family with a culture so different from her own? The story itself is not bad, but if you want to learn more about how is life really like in Afghanistan, I would recommend not even touching this one.

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The story is about Sultan Khan and his family. For a long time he has been supplying books to the people of Kabul even though it has been prohibited by various authorities like the communists or the Taliban. He didn’t get away unpunished: he was arrested and imprisoned by the communists, and the Talibans burned books on the street. He still continues his job as a bookseller, and at the same time has rather strict views on how his family has to live their lifes. Women and men are strictly separated, and women besides have to move within a restricted space.

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Asne Seierstad doesn’t believe in this discrimination of women and it shows too much in the story. Maybe good enough to pass as a novel written from a Western world point of view, but it fails to show how it’s really like to live in Afghanistan. And I doubt the Khan family shared all their emotions and family secrets to a total stranger. All in all for me a disappointment.

BOOK REVIEW: A Long Way Gone – by Ishmael Beah

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Title: A Long Way Gone; Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier
Author: Ismael Beah
Genre: Memoir, Non Fiction
First published: February 13th 2007
Finished reading: March 4th 2013
Pages: 218

Rating 4,5

“I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end…”

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Even when I first heard about this book, I knew A Long Way Gone would leave its mark on me. This memoir telling the story of a young boy soldier in Sierra Leone is both impressive, sad and overwhelming. Ismael Beah was lucky enough to survive the terrors of the civil war and tells us without filter exactly how things really were for young boys in Sierra Leone. Make sure to have a tissue box closeby, because you will need it while you read A Long Way Gone!

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Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier tells the story of Ishmael Beah, now twenty-five years old. In this memoir he tells his heartbreaking story of his experiences during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone and the ongoing predicament of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide. When Beah was 12, he was forced to escape from attacking rebels in Sierra Leone. He was separated from his family and as he travelled around his country to escape the war, he was forced to join an army unit in order to stay alive. There they brainwashed him by giving him drugs and by thirteen, he had seen more people die (quite a few by his own hand) and experienced incidents that others may not have to deal with throughout their entire lives. At the age of 16, however, UNICEF removed him from the unit and gave him a chance to be forgiven and to start a new life in Freetown. When he traveled to the USA to participate in a conference, he was given a chance to teach others about the horrific and unimaginable things he was forced to face . Things that millions of children around the world still face today… He had to go back to Sierra Leone after the conference, but when the situation became too dangerous to stay in Freetown, where he lived with his uncle, he fled the country and was able to get back to the USA, where he lives to this day.

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This book is a truly impressive story and I admire Ishmael’s courage to tell his story to the world; admitting that he killed a lot of innocent people in the process. I respect him for that and also for giving us the opportunity to read and try understand how children are forced to do horrible things when facing war. This book is definitely recommended to those who enjoy reading non fiction, memoirs or stories about foreign cultures. Warning: A Long Way Gone is not for the weakhearted.