Friday, July 27, 2018

Book Review: The Dutch Wife

The Dutch WifeThe Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The historical fiction coming out in the last few years that depicts regular people and their lives in extenuating circumstances has really been wonderful. I now add The Dutch Wife to the list of really great writing and storytelling.
As always with any WWII story set at a concentration camp there are many events of abuse, rape, starvation, murder and more awful actions. Ellen Keith does not dance around these issues; instead she describes them with a realistic and stark attitude. As we all know they happened, and part of historical fiction is to warn us not to allow history to repeat itself I feel the level of detail and description is more than appropriate for the subject matter. That said, be forewarned that this is not a novel for the faint of heart.

The Story
Our primary story is told from two points of view. One from a woman from Amsterdam who is a Jew sympathizer. The other from a man who is a higher ranking Nazi officer assigned to the camp. The setting is a Nazi concentration camp with marginally better conditions than Auschwitz; which isn't saying much.
The narrative is primarily about this woman and man coping with what life has thrown at them. They both make seemingly impossible decisions in order to stay alive. These decisions and moments are the real heart of Keith's novel.

The 'Side' Story
This separate story is based on a historical event I knew nothing about until reading The Dutch Girl. While the 1970's account of the Dirty War in Argentina and the wrongful communist persecutions sets up a great contrast to the WWII narrative; every time Keith swapped to this story all I wanted was for the chapter to be over so we could return to our leading man and woman at the camp. The dual telling of these stories adds an analytical view on suppression and control of a dictator; but overall I could have done without it. But I'm sure some English professors are thrilled with the comparison and essay opportunities the story adds to The Dutch Wife. This is added story is the only reason why I give this 4 stars instead of 5.

Conflicting Emotions
Both our characters in WWII have situations in which they are going against their gut reaction. Each time this happens they end up with conflicting emotions with what they are doing. Keith does a brilliant job of show us that circumstance is really what leads us to make certain decisions. And while in average daily lives they maybe wouldn't have made the same decision; the harshness of the concentration camp and the will to stay alive means that both our characters do what some may call morally subject things both physically, mentally and emotionally.
I've always thought that circumstance drives the core decisions we make on a daily basis. Factors like age, health, safety, money, opportunity (or lack of) cannot be overlooked when we analyse why someone does something at any given time.

As with most WWII stories, The Dutch Wife focuses on the inner personal conflict that many people (German or not) experienced when they started to realize what following the Nazi party laws meant in actuality. Keith focuses on the strife and struggle for average people to survive during this time of harsh rules and deadly outcomes. The focus is on how so many people 'allowed' this power shift to happen and why so many made decisions we might today call immoral.
The Dutch Wife clearly demonstrates that none of us can say that we would never, ever break a personal moral. Instead only that we have all been fortunate enough to not been pushed beyond all reason to make decisions purely based on the will to live.
For example: it's easy to say I will not cheat on my spouse; but it's a lot harder to stay committed if that spouse: goes missing for years, has ailing health issues, is inattentive or in any way abusive. Each of these scenarios (and many others) might convince, even the most fervently devoted spouse, to act differently than they would if they had a loving spouse next to them. Until you have been in someone's shoes you cannot say what you might have done or not done. The Dutch Wife shows this with such clarity regarding what we today would consider simple decisions. It's a truly wonderful perspective and had me thinking a lot about the idea of morality and what makes someone a 'good' person. Keith also focuses on the continuing theme that we all have a basic instinct, hard-wired in our brains, to survive. And at moments when survival seems unlikely or is challenged nothing but surviving matters anymore. This is the moment when 'good' people can cross over into areas of morality they never imagined they'd go. This is the power of limited options on the brain. Survival instinct takes over and we are no longer the person we once were.

The personal introspective into 'average' people and their rationales during this extraordinary time makes The Dutch Wife more about people and how we cope, than about WWII itself. Regardless of what historical plight or time Keith had chosen I believe the core story wouldn't change in this novel. Being able to relate with each character and understand each point of view helps us understand the factors restricting their choices. This makes this a very intimate novel that is likely to make many people wonder what they would have done given the same circumstances. In our increasingly complex and tumultuous world Keith has brought to light how the climate of circumstances can definitely change our actions.

I am finding myself asking (more often these days) if I would do the same thing as someone in their circumstances. Doing this BEFORE judging or assuming morality, faith or commitment is something I believe more of us need to do. If we hold onto the understanding that survival is the key to life then I believe we would approach many issues and people differently. I hope others are able to get better perspective on the difficulty of having only awful decisions before you. And while to die is always an option; we should never underestimate our animal instinct to survive.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Book Review: The Big Lie

Title: The Big Lie
Author: Julie Mayhew
Genre: Teen, Political, Alternate history
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In all honestly I should have DNF'd this book. I made the mistake of continuing to think it was going somewhere. I love dystopian books and so this alternate 'history' of the Nazi's winning WWII and what that regime would look like post-2000 sounded like a brilliant premise. And it probably still is. So two stars for a good idea; but only two stars for poor execution. 

The Missing Plot
Unfortunately Julie Mayhew didn't deliver any solid plot or story. Instead The Big Lie is just a telling of how the world is and one girls 'participation' in said dystopian world. Nothing really happens. Many things seem like they are about to happen and when one really huge thing does transpire 2/3 of the way through the book the narrative that comes after is just confusing and frustrating. 
I feel a bit like a broken record on this but plot is important! It's not enough to tell the story of someone existing in a certain world. I want to know what drives, excites, worries, pleases, etc. them given the context of the world they live in. Characters need a driving force. And while yes there are many real people who may have no real passion or movement in their lives when you take that type of a person and drop them in a story they are a dull, boring and frustrating character. A poor choice for the lead heroine for sure. 

Annoyingly Obscure
If you've read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas then you're going to know what I say when I talk about obscure references. The boy in that story says "Out-With" to refer to Auschwitz. Due to his age he is unable to say the name correctly. Within about three pages of the weird wording an aha moment happens for most readers and they catch on to what the boy is actually saying. This is done for a handful of terms quite effectively with the child’s voice. 
Mayhew did not achieve this aha moment for me with her obscure and varying descriptions or inferences to situations. I did not at all understand that an X on a girls belly meant that she would be sterilized until 100 pages AFTER the reference was first made. I'd like to think I am not that slow or inattentive of a reader that I missed some key clue. Instead I think a lot was expected to be inferred. So much so that at times I reread chapters twice to make sure I didn't miss some hint or tip about what they were actually talking about. Obscurity done well is a wonderful story telling mechanism. But done poorly it can be the downfall of an entire book. For The Big Lie it falls down a long ladder of missed nuances for me. 

Character Annoyances
I really wanted to like our lead heroine. I really did. But by the end of the book I just wanted to torture her into submission. Ironic given some of the things that happen in the last 1/3 of the story... Indoctrination is a very dangerous thing and it can be done without you ever realizing it's happened. Take school shootings... they have become such a common occurance in the USA that they are barely reported on anymore. And if they are reported on it's only for a day, maybe two. In the past people would be obsessed with a school shooting incident for months, possibly even years. But we have become desensitized, normalized, or even indoctrinated (depending on how you view media) to accept that school shootings happen and that's just the way it is. This is what politics can do to society when they simply 'ignore' an issue.
If there is one thing to take from this book it’s how easy it is to fall prey to the indoctrination when everyone around you is pushing it. One voice of reason is not enough. I guess in the end I’m annoyed and ultimately disappointed by our heroines inability to even grasp what could have been. Maybe that’s the point Mayhew is making; that we are all likely to be failures in our lives about issues we know are wrong. If that is the message I still think it’s not worth getting from this narrative. 

In the End
Maybe my point above about the indoctrination is what Mayhew wanted to really say to her readers. If that is the case then she certainly managed to get the point across. Unfortunately it was done in an annoying and unproductive way. I would not recommend this book to even the most politically interested of readers as I don't think it says anything new and it certainly didn't appeal to me at either the story, plot, character or political level.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Book Review: Asymmetry

Title: Asymmetry
Author: Lisa Halliday
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Asymmetry is defined as: lack of equality or equivalence between parts or aspects of something; lack of symmetry ( 
Certainly there is little that is equal in Lisa Halliday's book. Broken into three parts we have: 
1) A story of a 20-something woman and her affair (love?) with a man over 80. 
2) The dialogue and back story of a dual citizen (Iraqi and American) man detained at an airport.
3) An interview with the 80-something man and a radio host about his writing and interpretation of the world. Apparently this interview is adapted from a real-life one so the ah-ha's in it are not necessarily that of Halliday but of the original writer that spoke. 

Obviously 1 and 3 have a common bond; they both include our 80-something male who is a writer. His commentary on the world and his interpretation in literature can be thinly linked back to the events that happen to our man in part 2. But boy do you have to think... a lot! 

How Much Thinking Is Too Much?
When I first read Animal Farm in Grade 8 I was greatly impacted by it's prose and set-up as an allegory. I thought it was so clever. My teacher at the time suggested I read Lord of the Flies following Animal Farm, and again my 13-year-old self was shaken by how easy it was to tell a complex story when you took all the known or assumed things out of it. I loved the cleverness of this literature back then and still do today. So I was intrigued when I read the blurb for Asymmetry and a review from the New York Times that you had to be a 'smart reader' in order to really get this book. They were not kidding! 

All three parts are very interesting stories on their own. Part 1 has no plot, but has excellent character development. Part 2 has plot that happens in a very short span of time and so most of the story is the history being told to us by our leading man while he engages with the plot. Part 3, the radio interview, has some very profound things to say about writing literature and how to ensure you are not unintentionally influenced by the outside world. But put them all together and it requires way too much analysis and discussion to make even the most subtle of links. Reading the questions at the back of the book meant for book clubs still barely got me to see any plausible link(s) between the stories. 

I Read to Be Entertained or Informed
The average person reads in order to be entertained. Some may read to be informed (non-fiction or biography fit well here). I generally read for both purposes and love books where I'm not only entertained but learn something (ie: historical fiction, political fantasy, etc.). Even if that learning is not fact but more of a general idea or concept to think on that was employed in the fictional story (ie: communism, friendship, survival, etc.) 

If you read to be entertained in any way you might find these stories, as I did, interesting on their own (even if lacking some substance). For those who like to be informed, you might learn about the difficulties folks with two passports go through at airports (or the injustice of being denied entry into a country); or you might have a new perspective on a 50+ age difference in a relationship. That said I doubt you will feel informed or entertained when trying to connect the two together. 

All that said, Halliday's writing is absolutely wonderful! This is the primary reason I give this novel any stars at all. I kept wanting to turn the page even when I wasn't totally interested in the story. Only a master writer can tell a story you only marginally care about and still make you keep wanting to turn pages. I will certainly look into future fiction that she writes. 
As for the Asymmetrical 'connection', I cannot in good faith say it was positive as I did not get it, or am too lazy to think hard enough about it to get it. (lol) Maybe my subconscious made some sort of link between the stories; but ultimately I'm not interested in putting in the time and effort to really get anywhere. This could however make a good book club pick if your group likes to be challenged. 

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.