Day 1121: Salt to the Sea

Cover for Salt to the SeaAt the end of World War II, three teenagers are among the refugees fleeing through East Prussia from the Russians. Joanna is a Lithuanian nurse who was patriated into Germany. Emilia is a young Polish girl with no papers. Florian is a Prussian on a mission.

Salt to the Sea follows these three on their flight, as well as Alfred, a Nazi sailor helping ready the Wilhelm Gustloff for its load of refugees. The novel switches among the points of view of these narrators in brief chapters.

And this is one of its fundamental problems. The novel jumps back and forth between narrators, allowing us to really know no one. To add further to that distancing, most other characters are referred to only by their professions or other attributes, even fairly important ones such as the old shoemaker travelling with the group. The result is that we don’t really care about any of the characters.

Further, this novel shares an attribute with much other young adult fiction that I dislike. It is told in first person—in this case four first persons—which is not necessarily a problem. But except for Alfred’s, the narratives are indistinguishable in style and written in short, choppy sentences with simple structure, as if the assumption is made that young adults have no complex thoughts. To make things worse, some of the metaphorical language is excruciating. Witness the following:

And for some reason those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.

Of course, this sentence is from the abhorrent Alfred, but similar excrescences come from the other narratives.

Finally, the chopped up narrative style so slows down the action at the end of the book that, combined with the distance we feel from the characters, it makes the climax of the novel actually boring. And really (spoiler), when a torpedo hits the ship, the only description Sepetys can think of is “Bang!” repeated four times?

The evacuation of the refugees and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff make an important story, but sadly Sepetys is not the writer to tell it.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 967: The Danish Girl

Cover for The Danish GirlThe Danish Girl is another example of how untrustworthy book blurbs are for conveying the sense and feel of a novel. The blurb talks about “the glitz and glamour of 1920’s Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.” Yes, there is a bit of going about to bistros in Paris, but this novel is not about glitz and glamour. It is mostly about the tender relationship between two people, Greta and her husband Einar, who becomes the first man to undergo a sex change operation. Ebershoff lightly based this fictional book on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, both artists, but he says the details of their lives are wholly invented.

It is Greta who realizes something first. She is a portrait painter with a deadline. When an opera singer can’t make her sitting, Greta asks Einar to put on a stocking so she can use his leg as a model. Later, she has him put on a dress. Einar is a delicate man who is not self-aware. From the time he begins dressing up as Lily, he becomes more and more abstracted from his painting and his former life. Greta sees him drifting vaguely away from Einar, becoming Lily.

I wondered if Ebershoff’s description of Lily’s state of mind really reflected how a transexual person would feel, as Lily seems barely able to remember anything about Einar and vice versa. It almost seemed more like a description of a person with multiple personalities. But I don’t know much about this subject.

This is not a novel of action or plot. It is more about the states of mind of the people involved. It is sympathetic and touching. I didn’t think it would be my subject matter, but I found it affecting.

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Day 868: Flight of Dreams

Cover for Flight of DreamsI liked Ariel Lawhon’s first book only moderately but enough so that I was willing to give her second book a try. Since the ending of the first book redeemed what I initially considered a mediocre novel, I was trying to hold out for the ending of this one. That being said, after more than 160 pages, I gave up on Flight of Dreams.

The novel is about the flight of the Hindenburg on its way from Germany to the U. S. on the trip that ends with its explosion. The novel has a large cast of characters, passengers and crew. Many of the characters have secrets, including a couple on some sort of mission, a thief who has deeper motives, and a Jewish woman attempting to leave Germany.

In what Lawhon was attempting, this novel reminded me of Dead Wake, Erik Larson’s nonfiction book about the sinking of the Lusitania. Frankly, Dead Wake built up a lot more suspense. The pace of this novel truly drags. At more than 400 pages, we follow practically every second of four days. By page 168, where I stopped, the book had only reached breakfast on the second day. Since the Hindenburg departed in the evening, I knew I was in trouble.

Perhaps there are too many characters in the novel. We see the actions from five points of view, but there is no distinct voice that differentiates them one from the other. Each narrative point of view sounds the same. Further distance is created by the chapter names, which continue to refer to the characters by their roles (the American, the Stewardess) even after we know their names.

What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t care about Max and Emilie’s romance or what was going on with the Adelts or what the American was up to. I keep making this complaint, but it seems as though some authors don’t know that part of their job is to get readers to care about what happens, not just put characters through their paces. The most notable novels I have read in recent years (or maybe ever) have all shared one trait—they have all had a distinctive voice.

link to NetgalleyFinally, some of the scenes between people play like TV melodrama. I’m thinking of the fight between the Adelts over Gertrud going to the bar and a scene where Emilie kisses a man she doesn’t care for in front of Max. These scenes seem like simply (hackneyed) devices to move the plot, not as if they are originating from the realistic behavior of a character. As far as I was concerned, the Hindenburg could have blown up 300 pages earlier.

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Day 841: Night

Cover for NightHere is my review of my Classics Club spin choice for Spin #11!

Night is Elie Wiesel’s spare and harrowing description of his and his father’s time spent in a series of concentration camps during World War II. He begins his story in 1944, where in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, the war did not seem to have touched the Jewish population. They had heard of problems in Budapest, but they knew nothing of the larger Nazi activities aimed at their people.

The first indications came from Moishe the Beadle, a man with whom Elie has been studying the Kabbalah. As a foreign Jew, Moishe was deported to a work camp. But he came back to tell everyone that all of the deportees were driven to Poland where they were forced to dig trenches and then shot. Moishe was wounded but managed to get away and returned to warn them. No one believed him, however. They naively refused to believe the Germans could behave that way. Elie and his family could have gotten a visa out of the country, even at that late date, but they stayed.

Next, all the Jews were rounded up into two ghettos, and not much longer after that, they were shipped out to Auschwitz. Once the women and girls were separated from the men and boys at the camp, Wiesel never saw his mother or sister again. He was 15 and probably only lived because an inmate told him to say he was 18.

At only 120 pages, this is a short but affecting description of his experiences in the camps. It does not dwell overly much on the horrific conditions, but we understand how terrible it was. The book also deals with Wiesel’s spiritual landscape, as he changed from a devout boy to a man who no longer believes.

This book is not a testament to human fortitude, for Wiesel makes it clear that humans under evil conditions behave badly. Instead, it is an important documentation of a black time in human history.

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Day 702: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Cover for Dead WakeIn Dead Wake, Erik Larson has written another fascinating history—the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania. As he sometimes does, Larson goes after the story with a two-pronged approach: on the one hand following preparations for the voyage and the actual trip, on the other hand following the progress of the U-20, the German U-boat that sank it. In this book, the story has a third, weaker prong—the romance of President Woodrow Wilson with Edith Bolling Galt, who would become his second wife.

Even though everyone reading the book knows what will happen to the Lusitania, a passenger ship en route to England from the United States during World War I, Larson manages to create a fair amount of suspense. He tells us about a number of the passengers, and we want to know who survives, of course. I think this ability of Larson’s to create suspense even from a story where we know the outcome is quite a talent.

Aside from learning about the ship, the voyage, and the results of the attack, we also learn about things that are more surprising. In particular, Larson leads us to wonder whether the British admiralty was incompetent or whether the hope that some event like this would force the Americans into the war made them negligent. There were several actions the admiralty could have taken to keep the ship safer.

I recently read an article about the man who bought the wreckage of the Lusitania, who believes that the ship secretly carried armament meant for England. It is true that there was an unexplained second explosion after the U-boat’s torpedo hit the ship, but if the theory turns out to be correct, that makes the British admiralty’s conduct even more perplexing.

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Day 575: All the Light We Cannot See

Cover for All the Light We Cannot SeeI felt a bit of distance while I was reading All the Light We Cannot See, but by the end I was brought under its spell. It is about a German boy and a French girl who meet briefly during World War II.

Werner is growing up in an orphanage in Germany. He has always been fascinated by how things work, particularly electronics, and he is far advanced of his teachers in math. One day he discovers a broken radio set in the trash and is able to make it work. He and his sister Jutta discover a children’s broadcast from France in which a man explains science topics and plays music. This station delights them for years until it becomes dangerous to listen to under the Nazi regime.

With all his gifts, Werner is slated to work in the mines when he is old enough. He gets an opportunity, though, to attend a technical school. Against Jutta’s advice, as Werner has avoided being pulled into the orbit of Nazi politics, he takes his chance.

Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith employed by a Paris geological museum. At the age of five she becomes blind. Her father teaches her to find her way in their neighborhood by making a model of it, which she learns by feeling her way. She loves spending time at the museum, learning about all its treasures and handling the shells. She also loves reading adventure stories in Braille.

When the Nazis are due to invade Paris, the museum gives four stones to four employees to keep safe. One of them is the museum’s most precious possession, a fabled diamond with a curse attached; the others are fakes. Marie-Laure’s father receives one of them, and the two leave the city, eventually arriving in St. Malo, where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle lives.

The diamond acts as sort of a MacGuffin in this novel. Of course, we are sure who has the real stone.

The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner’s pasts alternate with the bombing of St. Malo in 1944 by the Americans. Werner is trapped with some German soldiers in the basement of a hotel, while Marie-Laure is hiding in her great-uncle’s house from a German officer searching for the diamond.

This novel is beautifully written and shows the hardships of war from both sides of the conflict. Werner struggles with his desire to do what is expected vs. what is the right thing. Marie-Laure tries to resist the chaos of war in other ways. I felt for a long time that the novel would end predictably, but I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by how the ending opened up from a claustrophobic setting to a more universal feeling.