Tag Archives: WWII

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (3/5). The only proper way to give your book 20 endings

21 Apr

I wish I could have read it faster, but I’m really glad I got to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. My co-workers and I will get together sometime this week to talk about it and I’ll put up a summary of what we talked about.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In a mix between reincarnation and the movie Groundhog’s Day, Ursula Todd is reborn on the same snowy day in 1910 when she dies. In each of her lives, she’s subtly aware of the lives she’s lived before and is able to avoid the terrible tragedies that befell her and her family. She remembers their maid bringing the Spanish Flu into the house and killing her and her younger brother. She remembers the London Bombings by the Luftwaffe and how she’s died in them. She remembers an abusive lover and the death of a young friend. In each life, she has to decide which tragedies to avoid and which to bare.

I didn’t know when I started this that Ursula was going to continue reliving the same life. I thought the book was more about reincarnation. I think I prefer the alternative that Atkinson pursued with this novel, however. It was a really unique idea and raised a lot of good questions. What would I have done in Ursula’s situation? If I’d known of a huge international war that was coming, what would I do to stop it? In my life time, that’s September 11th (though I would still be a bit young to do much at the time). How could I have stopped that and would I have done it? I love powerful books that make you ask yourself that question.

I loved how layered the characters in this book were. We got to see them on several different life paths in the book and we could see how they reacted to Ursula in her different lives. I loved Sylvie as a character because she was well developed, but I didn’t like her. In the life where Ursula was raped, Sylvie is so rude and hateful toward her daughter that it tinged how I felt about her in all of the following lives. I liked getting to see different sides of Teddy depending on if Nancy lived or died. I adored Ursula’s change in romantic interests between lives and how she would deal with those people in her other lives, remembering them slightly as if they were ghosts. Characters in this book were very strong in general.

Ursula herself was my favorite character. I loved seeing her thrown into so many terrible situations and reacting with such insight and poise that it was incredible. She was, quite literally, an old soul in her youth and a very practical woman in middle age. Though the reader gets to see her grow up sever times, we still see her as dynamic across her lives.

There wasn’t a character that I could particularly attach myself to and relate to well. It’s sometimes hard to do that in historical fiction where the setting takes a very strong role. Having never been bombed or lived during a World War, it was difficult to relate to the characters and the struggles they felt. There were moments when I could sympathize with Hugh or Izzy or Ursula, but on a whole, I didn’t think the characters were much like me.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite part of the book was the time Ursula spent with Eva Braun in Germany. I thought it was a really interesting way to have Ursula connect with Adolf Hitler. Most WWII books written from a German point of view tend to focus on suffering (like The Book Thief or Stones from the River) but this one focused on the luxury and affluence that Hitler allowed himself. Eva and Ursula were so far from Berlin when they were in the mountains that Eva would be bored, not even aware of the war and death. I thought this was a really unique perspective of a terrible situation.

I think the repeated deaths in the London Bombings were my least favorite section of the book. It was dark, depressing, and bordered on repetitive. We would invest in Ursula so much, only to see her killed in the same building. While I know showing us her life until the point of death each time made it harder to see her die, it also made the book drag in the middle and it got to a time when I had to keep putting the book down to do something lighter and happier.

I loved the theme of sacrifice in this book. Ursula has to decide between her own happiness and doing something for the greater good, which might not even matter if the world was to begin again. How big of an impact did killing Hitler make if she has to do it in each life? Like Billy Murray in Groundhog’s Day, is she searching for the most meaning and impact a single person can make in one life? Would that be killing Hitler, or is it saving the people of London from burning buildings? What sacrifice is the greatest and how can Ursula make that sacrifice?

Writer’s Takeaways: I adored how Atkinson was able to develop characters by giving us different views of them in Ursula’s different lives. I think this would be a hard style for another writer to follow or copy, so it’s a good one to appreciate from a distance. Atkinson’s creativity must be commended.

A solid three out of five. It dragged, but it was well worth reading.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Life After Live, by Kate Atkinson | The Marlborough Reading Group
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson | mrsmamfa
Audiobook Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson | literary hoarders

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Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

26 Sep

Yet another book done!  If anyone’s counting, that’s a total of 53 for the year, well on my way to a goal of 70.  I’m trying to get ahead a bit before NaNo because that’s going to slow me down.

I read this book because I love historical accounts and because I’d never read it before.  I know, shocking.  It was never required in high school, though I do remember an ex-boyfriend who read it and raved about it.  I didn’t much respect his literary preferences then or now, but when my husband said something similar, I knew that this book must be something special.

Night by Elie Wiesel, translated by Marion Wiesel

I knew nothing about this book when I went to read it except that it was about the Holocaust.  I actually looked for it in the fiction section and had to use the library computer to find it in the non-fiction audiobooks.  Night is Wiesel’s account of the Holocaust that he survived and how harrowing of a journey he endured.  Wiesel was an adolescent when he entered the camp and only survived the first day by lying about his age.  He wrote this book (and the second two of the trilogy) years after his release and freedom.

Wiesel and his family live in Romania until they are rounded up in 1944 with the other Jews from their ghetto.  They are taken to Auschwitz where Wiesel and his father are separated from his mother and sisters, never to see them again.  He is put in a forced labor complex to sort electrical parts.  When the front starts to move closer to Auschwitz, the military moves the prisoners Buchenwald in central Germany.  The death rate on the move is over 90%.  Those who are left behind in the Auschwitz hospital ward are liberated 3 days after the SS leave.

Without spoiling the ending, I’ll conclude my summary by saying Wiesel just barely makes it out alive and is obviously shocked for life by the ordeal.  He spent his entire life fighting for human rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his efforts.  This book was published in 1955 and he lives to this day in New York City.  He is 95 years old.

The style Wiesel uses is very sparse in details.  He says that he’d rather write too little than too much.  One thing that Wiesel does concentrate on is feelings, emotions, and reactions.  He talks about how he feels about his father’s illness and what he remembers of it rather than describe the physical maladies his father endured.  The emotional reacting is what I feel was so compelling about Wiesel’s writing.

Much of Wiesel’s message came in the Nobel Acceptance Speech that was included in my copy.  He talks about how all people in our world should be treated like people; with fairness and justice.  At a young age, Wiesel was confounded as to how he was not worthy of the basic necessities of life.  He wants his book to move people to see that all humans, no matter how they are precised by some, are worthy of basic care.

Another theme my husband brought to my attention is Wiesel’s fight with God throughout the novel.  He starts as a devout young Jewish boy and quickly wonders why the God he loves would put his own people through such suffering and death.  Wiesel looses his faith along with most of the prisoners; they stop preying and lose respect for the rabbis.

One question that Wiesel raises is “How did the world not respond?”  If I remember my world history classes well, it wasn’t that no one responded, it’s that no one knew.  Had the world been aware of what the SS were doing to the Jews, would everyone have stood idly by and continued fighting the war for political power and control?  Or would the concentration have changed to human rights and the freedom of the captured Jews?  WWII brought about international criminal tribunals and later the ICJ.  Reaction to what happened in Auschwitz and elsewhere was extreme and severe.  I’d like to think that human concentration during WWII would have shifted from defeating Hitler to liberating the Jews had the world been aware of what was going on.

Wiesel has fought for awareness of human oppression and I think he would agree with me on this point.  If the public and political leaders are aware of problems, then we can fight against them.  Awareness must then lead to action.

This raises the issue of “slactivism” which is a term referring to those who raise awareness of an issue and do nothing to help solve it.  It will usually refer to those who re-tweet something or post on Facebook about how bad a situation is.  I think Wiesel is probably disgusted by these people because of all the forceful action he has taken toward change.  I heard author Thrity Umrigar speak and she said that protests for change are only effective when a person puts their physical safety at risk.  I loved this analogy.  March on Washington= physical risk.  Re-Tweeting about the “Kony 2012” movement= slactivism.

Writer’s Takeaways: I mentioned before that Wiesel’s focus on emotions, feelings, and reactions made this book come to life for me.  I think that’s true of all literature.  Other than that, I don’t want to recommend being a part of mass human extermination so following his life path is not recommended.  Wiesel’s passion and strong belief make him a very compelling writer.  He teaches us all to write from our hearts.

Four out of Five.  Highly recommended.