BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller – by Jodi Picoult

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Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary
First published: 2013
Finished reading: April 17th 2015
Pages: 460
Rating 4,5

“History isn’t about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.”

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The Storyteller ended up being a mix between contemporary and historical fiction, where part of the story is set in the present and the rest of the story during WWII. Jodi Picoult has even incorporated a fantasy story that is written by one of the main characters during the war… This story about a Polish upior (similar to a vampire) plays a big role in the survival of a Jewish girl named Minka and is one of the links to the scenes set in the present. Those contemporary scenes are probably my least favorite, but still I liked most of the main characters. Some of the less important ones were a bit unbelievable though, and that’s probably why I haven’t given The Storyteller the full five stars… But the scenes set during WWII are so well written that they make up for the weaker contemporary scenes. Jodi Picoult described the situation of Minka and her Jewish family so well that I actually had tears in my eyes at some point… And I do not cry easily when I’m reading.

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Sage Singer doesn’t see herself as a Jew, but her grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor… Although she never talks about her experience. Sage had a car accident two years ago that left her with a scar on her face and without a mother… And she still struggles with her loss. To hide from society and her loss, Sage prefers to work night shifts at a local bakery. She normally tries to push people away, but one day she starts an unlikely friendship with an old retired teacher named Josef Weber. When they get to know each other a little better, he asks her for a huge favor: to help him kill himself. Sage is shocked, but Josef tries to get her to help him anyway by confessing his darkest secret: he was a Nazi SS guard during WWII, working in one of the death camps. Therefore, he deserves to die…

Sage first doesn’t believe him, but contacts the autorities anyway. The FBI has a special unit chasing old war criminals, and the guy in charge asks her to collect more information; forcing Sage to continue her friendship with Josef. As he starts telling more and more about his past, Sage doesn’t know if she can live with the horrible facts she now knows. How can she ever forgive a man who has done so many terrible things? And is she the right person to hand out that forgiveness? Her own grandmother is a Holocaust survivor; was she one of Josef’s victims?

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The sappy romance scenes were quite annoying, but the rest of the story made up for it. The chapters set during WWII were written brilliantly and full of emotion. Jodi Picoult chose to write from both Josef’s and Minka’s point of view, which gives you a general impression of both ‘sides’ of the situation and the consequences of certain actions. The ending of The Storyteller is definitely unexpected, although it wasn’t a total surprise after Josef’s blood group was mentioned… The upior fantasy story is an unique touch to this historical holocaust testimony, and is probably one of the reasons why I gave this novel such a high rating. That and the WWII chapters… In short, this novel is perfect for those who enjoy reading historical fiction, as long as you don’t mind some sappy romance scenes and bakery talk. The main character Sage is a baker like some of her ancestors, and baking plays an important role in the story…

BOOK REVIEW: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas – by John Boyne

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Title: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA, WWII
First published: 2006
Finished reading: June 23rd 2014
Pages: 224
Rating 4,5

He looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly.
“You’re my best friend, Shmuel,” he said. “My best friend for life.”

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The Boy In The Striped Pajamas was a great read. This book by John Boyne can be classified as amazingly moving and is ingeniously written from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. After seeing the movie various times, I already knew this book was going to be sad… And Boyne was able to make the tears flow perfectly while describing the developing relationship between Bruno and the Jewish boy Shmuel. The way Boyne incorporates themes as the Auschwitz concentration camp and other horrible facts of the Second World War and shows them through the eyes of a boy is refreshing. Bruno is too young to understand what’s happening during the Second World War or what his father’s job really implies… With terrible consequences.

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The story is set during the 1949’s in Nazi Germany, where Bruno and his family live a comfortable life in Berlin. His father is an important man and one day the Fury (Fuhrer) visits their home with important news. Soon his father is offered a job at Out-With (Auschwitz) and the family has to move to Poland. Bruno hates it there and wants to go back to Berlin, unable to understand why they moved there in the first place. Being a naive nine-year-old, he cannot grasp the real meaning of his father’s job… And he doesn’t understand what kind of place Out-With really is. When he looks out of his bedroom window, he sees a big group of people wearing striped pajamas and caps. They are all gathered together in a huge area with small huts and a fench surrounding them, and Bruno wonders what is really out there…

Acting like the explorer he wants to be some day, he decides to walk to the fence himself and find out more about those people wearing the pajamas. He knows he’s not supposed to be going there, but his curiosity wins and soon finds himself close to the fence. Bruno then meets a small Jewish boy named Shmuel, prisoner at the Out-With camp. They discover they were born the same day, and soon share more than that… Bruno tries to visit his new friend every day, sharing thoughts and food with the boy. Somehow sensing his friendship with Shmuel might be frowned upon, he decides to keep him a secret. When Bruno’s mother wants to move back to Berlin, he decides to pay one last visit to Shmuel. Bruno had promised to help find the Jewish boy’s missing father, and he wanted to discover for himself what was behind the fence. He had asked Shmuel to bring him an extra pair of striped pajamas so he could walk around the camp unseen…

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The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is a beautiful, but very sad story to read. Make sure to keep a box of tissues close as you will probably need it during the last few chapters. And make sure you watch the movie too if you haven’t; both are definitely recommended! Keep away if you don’t like sad endings though.

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!