Review 1844: Karolina and the Torn Curtain

I was interested in reading more foreign novels, so for some reason I picked Polish and then just googled a list of books. I picked a novel I thought was written by a woman only to find out that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym for two gay men. I would scold myself for sloppy research, but I enjoyed this mystery, although it is second in a series and I prefer to start with the first. However, I don’t think you miss much if you start with this one except maybe more introduction to the main characters.

The novel is set in 1895 Crakow. Zofia Turbotyńska is the respectable wife of a professor at the Jagellonian University. However, she has another occupation—solving crimes.

Zofia’s maid Karolina has disappeared from her house without explanation, and later her body is found in the river, where she has been thrown after being shot. The autopsy reveals she has also been violated.

When Zofia investigates, she learns that Karolina had met a young man, an engineer, who wanted to marry her and take her to America. Looking into it further, it appears that Karolina was lured by a white slaver, and the police claim to have identified him and shot him during an attempted escape. But then Zofia’s other maid Franciszka sees Karolina’s boyfriend in a crowd.

This mystery is quite convoluted and also fairly witty. One of the things modern audiences will find funny are some of the “scientific” ideas of the time—for example, that educating women affects their organs so that they can’t give birth. Another is the chapter subtitles, reminiscent of those in older novels except facetious.

I enjoyed this novel but didn’t feel the characters were that compelling. I’m not sure whether I will read another one.

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Review 1524: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Mrs. Dusczejko lives in a tiny Polish village near the Czech Republic, so remote that they get Polish or Czech police depending upon where in town they call from. In the early morning, her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, comes to get her, telling her he has found their other neighbor’s body. Although she hates this other neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot, because he’s a hunter and she believes it’s a crime to kill animals, she helps him make the body decent before the police arrive. Later, it’s determined that he died from choking on a deer bone.

Mrs. Duszejko is an eccentric old lady who spends her time doing astrological charts, helping an ex-student translate William Blake’s writings into Polish, and writing letters to the police complaining about poaching. After a few months, though, her life is disturbed when men in the area begin dying in a series of bizarre killings.

This is an unusual crime story that’s not so concerned about the criminal case as it is about the activities of its characters. It is sometimes funny and always atmospheric. I really enjoyed it.

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Review 1414: Lilac Girls

I would like to say to some writers, If you are going to use multiple narrators (please don’t), they must have their own voices. If they don’t sound like different people, this technique doesn’t work. Unfortunately, either Martha Hall Kelly doesn’t know this or can’t do it. I’m not talking about expressed concerns or interests here but actual tone and mode of expression.

Lilac Girls reminds me very much of Salt to the Sea. If you remember my review of that book, you know that’s not a good thing. There’s the World War II setting, the alternating chapters with different narrators, one of whom is the evil Nazi. There is also the unconvincing narrative change, the poor characterization, and the mediocre writing.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite who works for the French Consulate and is involved in charities to help French children. In summer of 1939, there are already lots of refugees fleeing from France. We guess she’s going to become involved in that; however, the first hundred pages of the novel concern her growing relationship with Paul Rodierre, an actor whose wife is trapped in France. Not very interesting, since Hall doesn’t get us to care about Caroline or Paul.

Kasia Kuzmerick is a Polish teenager living in Lublin. When the Nazi attack, she witnesses their planes firing on camps of refugees. Later on, she begins running errands for the resistance.

Herta Oberhauser is a young doctor who has bought the Nazi vision despite having difficulty getting a job because women are expected to be wives and mothers. She finally gets a job working at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women.

Not only did I think the characterization was poor, I felt the behavior of characters was at times unlikely. For example, Kasia is old enough to understand that her mother is being forced to have an affair with a Nazi, yet she makes a dangerous public scene with her about it. Herta is an ambitious doctor who cannot find a job because she is a woman, yet she buys the ideals of the Nazi party that is keeping her down.

I admit I did not finish this novel, which was taking a long time to get anywhere (another problem with such frequent switches in narration). I read about a quarter of the book then decided to quit wasting my time. The story of Ravensbrück is important, but this writer is not up to the task.

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Day 1181: The Zone of Interest

Cover for The Zone of InterestIn Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, the Zone is a Nazi factory and concentration camp in Poland. Interestingly, Amis makes this setting a source of some very black humor.

The novel is written from the points of view of several characters, mostly Nazis, but it is mainly from that of Thomsen, an officer in charge of production at the rubber factory. He is a womanizer, but he begins to have feelings for Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife.

Doll himself is a vile human being. He has his rival for Hannah imprisoned and uses threats against inmates’ relatives to force them to do things.

In fact, most of the characters are vile. And that’s the difficulty with this novel. First, is the Holocaust fodder for humor? I’m not sure it is in general, but it isn’t for me. Also, even though Thomsen is the least criminal of the characters because he’s working subtly against the war effort, these are people busily explaining away their own terrible actions.

Amis’s goal, I think, is to give some insight into the behavior of these people. Whether you want to read a novel on this subject probably depends on whether you’re interested in that insight. It made me a little queasy. This is one of the books I read for my Walter Scott Prize project that I didn’t really enjoy.

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Day 499: Literary Wives! The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

Cover for The Zookeeper's Wife

Here it is time for another Literary Wives club meeting. Please also see the reviews of my fellow “wives!”

If you have read the book and would like to participate, you can add comments to any of our pages or to the Literary Wives Facebook page.

Let’s get right to the book!

The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabiński, the keeper of the Warsaw zoo and his wife during World War II. After the bombardment by the Germans and their invasion, the Zabińskis struggled to keep the zoo animals alive, but they were also responsible for providing temporary shelter in the zoo grounds and in their house to hundreds of Jews. Jan, who was a member of the Polish Underground, found ways of smuggling people out of the ghetto, and he and Antonina kept them at the zoo until they could be placed elsewhere, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for longer periods.

The book is rich with details about life in their unusual household, full of animals and of hidden people who came out cautiously at night. It tells stories of lucky escapes and frightening encounters with the Nazis. It also provides information about life in the ghetto and some of its heroic leaders. I found some of these stories extremely touching, such as that of Henryk Goldzmit, a children’s author who went by Janusz Korczak. He abandoned his literary career to found an orphanage for Jewish children, and when the Nazis decided to ship all the children to Treblinka and almost certain death, went with them so they would not be frightened.

Although some of Ackerman’s many digressions from the main story add interest and color to the book, I unfortunately found others disruptive to the flow. For example, she spends more than a page on Jacques Offenbach simply because Antonina played one of his pieces on the piano to warn the hidden residents when strangers approached. Ackerman, a nature writer, spends another very long paragraph just listing the types of bugs in an insect collection entrusted to the Zabińskis. After awhile, these digressions began to feel like padding.

I also felt that Ackerman’s writing sometimes verges a little too closely on fiction. She is prone to rather florid descriptions of things she can only be imagining, often including inapt or odd metaphorical language. Although she introduces the book by saying she got the dialogue directly from Antonina’s diaries, she fictionalizes other things, such as the thoughts of sculptor Magdalena Gross, that could not have come from her sources. This style of writing for a nonfiction subject makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I read this book when it first came out and remembered it as a work of fiction.

What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Literary Wives logoIn what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife?”

It is interesting to me that Jan Zabiński describes Antonina at one time as “just a housewife,” because she is clearly so much more than that. She helps him administer the zoo and take care of the animals even before the war. During the war, she takes care of a household of refugees while Jan is out until late most nights and is gone for some extended periods of time. Although he is described as authoritarian and occasionally harsh, he trusts her implicitly to run things and keep everyone safe, even through scary encounters with Nazi officials and drunk soldiers. Although she would define herself as a wife and her husband as the master of the house, it is clear that the two respect each other and trust each other to handle difficult and dangerous situations. Antonina also defines herself as a mother, with the fierce determination to protect her children and her other charges.


Day 349: The Silver Sword

Cover for The Silver SwordThe introduction of my edition of The Silver Sword says it is a beloved British children’s book that has not been out of print since it was published in 1956. When I began to read it, the names of the characters seemed vaguely familiar, and when I read that it was published in the US as Escape from Warsaw, I realized that I too had read it as a child.

Joseph Balicki is taken away from his family in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of World War II for the crime of turning Hitler’s picture to the wall during a scripture lesson. He eventually manages to escape from prison and make his way back to Warsaw, only to find his house destroyed, his wife imprisoned, and his children missing.

Since the first days of the war, the family planned that if they ever got separated, they would meet in Switzerland at his wife’s parents’ house. Joseph decides to head for Switzerland, but first he befriends a street urchin named Jan. Joseph gives Jan a trifle belonging to his wife, a silver sword, and asks him if he ever meets his children to tell them to go to Switzerland.

The novel flashes back to when the Balicki’s mother was arrested. After the arrest, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia take to the streets and live through the war in cellars or in the woods outside the city. Edek is taken away to a German labor camp. Finally, at the end of the war, Ruth meets Jan and decides to make the trip to Switzerland. But first, she and Bronia, and Jan, for he comes too, must travel to Germany to find Edek.

The story goes quickly, narrated in a simple manner that does not focus much on emotion or characterization. Serrailler was cognizant of the sensibilities of children and also wanted, in the postwar years, to focus on reconciliation, so there are good people among all the nationalities the children encounter. He tries to show the horror and destruction of war without being too violent.

Perhaps Serailler was unaware that the Russians waited outside of Warsaw hoping that the Polish resistance would be completely wiped out by the Nazis. In any case, he did not express at all how much the Poles feared the arrival of the Russians. The story is probably not going to be very satisfying for an adult to read, from this standpoint and that of the style, but I remember being riveted by it as a child.

Day 116: 22 Britannia Road

Cover for 22 Britannia RoadAlthough the subject matter of 22 Britannia Road should have been interesting, a major flaw of this novel by Amanda Hodgkinson is that I always feel removed from the actions and characters. This feeling of distance may be because we, the readers, are immediately thrust into their woes without first getting a chance to know them.

One minute they meet, the next minute they have a baby, the next he is off to war. The two main characters, Janusz and Sylvana, are natives of Poland before the invasion of the Nazis, but aside from knowing that, you wouldn’t believe that anything unusual is going on. Later, they are in Poland, fleeing, with the Nazis invading, but except for a few events, you wouldn’t know there was a war. It’s as though the author is unable to imagine what it might be like first to live in Poland when the war is building and worse to be there once the Nazis arrive.

The novel actually begins after the war, with Janusz waiting in England, where he has spent most of the war, for the arrival of Sylvana and their son Aurek from Poland. Later it tells the story of their meeting, courtship, marriage, and war through unconvincing flashbacks.

It also tells the story of their floundering marriage, which happens because they tell each other nothing. This post-war story is a little more realized than the story of their past.

I have some sympathy for Janusz at the beginning of the novel, when he is waiting for his family to arrive. He has obviously meticulously prepared for them and is hoping to give them a good life. But I think Sylvana is a stupid woman, who is cloyingly overprotective of Aurek. She is harboring a big secret, but I guessed it almost from the beginning.

Although I was mildly interested in the story of the novel, I felt it could have been done much better.

Day 110: Maus I

Cover for MausMaus I is a graphic novel that is both about Art Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, Vladek, and about Vladek’s survival of the Holocaust. The characters are depicted as different types of animals–Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, and Swedes are reindeer. Spiegelman explained in The Comics Journal (according to a reader review on that his idea for using these animals is not entirely original but is extrapolated and expanded from the names the Germans called Poles and Jews.

In the novel, as Vladek tells Art the story of his experience during World War II, they also argue. The story is compelling, although the relationship between the two is less so. Vladek is difficult and eccentric, but Art seems childish and spoiled, with no patience or understanding for his father. However, the novel makes the point that he, too, was scarred by his father’s experiences.

I am not by any means an expert on graphic novels, having only read one other, which was the beautifully illustrated Britten and Brülightly. However, the art in Maus I is so primitive that I could not tell any of the characters of a single species apart except for their clothes. I suppose, though, that that in itself is a statement. Still, the art shows a strength of line and a simplicity that make it interesting.

Maus I is apparently intended for young adults, and as such, is probably a powerful educational piece. I think it is less successful for adults.

Day 51: With Fire and Sword

Cover for With Fire and SwordBest Book of Week 11!

Two years ago I read an exciting trilogy of Polish novels written in the 19th Century by Henryk Sienkiewicz, a Nobel prize winner for lifetime achievement in writing epic literature. The books were wildly popular for about 50 years, and Polish friends of mine tell me that they were their childhood reading. My review of the trilogy was published on Nancy Pearl’s blog (the librarian who has her own action figure), and I wrote to her awhile back asking if I could republish it here. She did not respond, so without further ado, I am going to write another review of the first book, With Fire and Sword. I will of course crib from my original review. The three books are stand-alone but with recurring characters, so you can read just one without missing important plot points.

It is 1647, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is having some trouble—there are rumblings of rebellion among the Cossacks, who are a major force in the Polish army. Yan Skshetuski is a young Polish officer in the hussars of the Ukrainian Prince Yeremi Vishnovyetski. Prince Yeremi sends him on a mission as an emissary to Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, the leader of the Cossack rebellion. Yan has just become engaged to the beautiful Helen, but duty calls, so he makes his way through down the river to where the Cossacks are gathering.

Yan has been sent too late, though, for the rebellion has already started when he arrives, and he is made a prisoner. He escapes with difficulty and makes his way through the war-torn landscape, all the time worrying about Helen.

The political situation in Poland is very unstable, so no one comes to Prince Yeremi’s aid as he is attacked by hoards of Cossacks from the southeast. Even though Helen has been kidnapped by the wild Cossack Bohun, Yan cannot take time to look for her because he is embroiled in another mission for the Prince. So, his friends, the fat buffoon Pan Zagloba, the lovelorn knight and master swordsman Michal Volodyovski, and the gentle Lithuanian giant Longinus Podbipyenta decide to help Yan by rescuing Helen themselves.

This novel is all adventure and romance, and it is truly exciting. Along the way, you learn something about 17th century Polish history.

If you are interested in reading the book, you may have  a hard time finding it (although I see it is available in a print-on-demand basis). It is also available in several translations, about which there is some debate. The original translation by Curtin is said to be truer to the book, but I took a look at it, and it is also fairly badly written. The translation that I read by Kuniczak takes some liberties with the structure of the novel, but is eminently readable, if you can find it. The cover picture at the beginning of the article is from the edition that I read.