book review

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is the story of three women in WW2, one American philanthropic socialite, one young Polish concentration camp prisoner and one ambitious German camp doctor. The American and German women are fictionalized portrayals of real historical figures, while the Polish woman is based on multiple women’s stories. It is a true story in the sense that the events the author portrays really took place and this makes the already compelling read impossible to look away from. The fictionalized nature of the retelling brings these people to life in a way that a dry text never would. In this way, the author has done a service to these women.

Hall captures the story of a young Polish girl who is a peripheral member of the Polish underground and is suddenly arrested, along with those around her, and transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. She has never heard of a camp before but is fortunate enough to speak German and French (and not be Jewish) which helps her survive. She is also with family and friends when she is taken, so her community is with her, which both helps and hurts as she has people to rely on and people to lose.

In the camp she encounters a German female doctor, whose ambitions, inculcated racism, and commitment to the Reich quickly overcame any humanitarian feelings she initially had over mass murder and live experimentation. In her quest for glory, and nursing a grudge against others who do not give her credit based on her gender, she willingly joins a doctor who is choosing “rabbits” to experiment on, without anesthesia, supposedly in order to test the effectiveness of a specific class of antibiotics on casualties of war. Her callousness and ability to ignore the pain she is causing to people in front of her for the sake of invisible German soldiers is astonishing.

The American woman comes into the story because of her aid work with French orphans during and after the war. She comes across the story of these women and lobbies to provide them medical assistance and worldwide recognition for the horrors they endured.

This is simultaneously the story of the great evil and great compassion humans are able to show one another. The contrast between the German doctor and American philanthropist aptly shows the range of human interaction and how we can directly affect the lives of others for better or for worse. It is a story of amazing survival in the face of unspeakable horrors, humanized by the fictionalized retelling which lets you really get to know the characters. I also like that it shows prose snapshots of events from pre-war all the way through post-Nuremburg trial events so you felt like you got as much of the entire story as it is possible to tell. I loved that in many instances, Kelly uses direct words from their first person accounts in order to give the characters authentic motives for their behavior.

I recently read Night, by Elie Weisel, and was so struck by the biographical horrors he relates that I was unable to write a review because it felt disrespectful to his words and experiences. You should read that book, but that’s all I feel capable of saying about it. Kelly’s retelling of true events in Lilac Girls provides humanity and kindness and she treats the subject with the respect it deserves, but also gives it a handle that makes it easier to address. The fictionalized account makes it a bit easier to read and talk about, without degrading or dehumanizing any of the real people portrayed in the story. She handles an amazingly hard subject in the German doctor without detracting from the doctor’s own humanity – something a lot of authors writing about Nazis cannot do. This portrayal is important, because it is easy to demonize the people who committed these atrocities, easy to forget that it was regular people who were part of the German extermination campaigns – Hall does not let you forget it. It is discomforting and disturbing in a healthy, honest way to recognize yourself even in the darkest characters in her book, while you are encouraged and inspired to emulate the brightest. She brings a historical truth to light in a way that makes you ask, “How did I never know this before?”

book review, Quotes

Stoner by John Williams

5-star-google-reviews-1024x567

Someone introduced this book to me as one of the great books of American literature and I was surprised that I had never heard of it. I added it to the book list and finally got around to reading it recently. It was beautiful in a soul aching, real kind of way and even after reading it, I’m not sure why. The book itself is the story of one simple and totally complex man’s life, but it’s also a story of every man. I cannot tell you how the story of an unremarkable man, written without ornamentation reminds me of a heroic epic, but it does. I’m giving this book 5/5 stars because I can’t stop thinking about it a month after I finished it in a good way and its hauntingly clear and simple language. I think I will end up reading it again in the future – it has the book magic.

William Stoner is the son of two poor farmers when he is introduced to the idea of going to university to learn more about agriculture. His parents send him there at great cost to both them and him, but as he starts his coursework he is arrested by one of his general education requirements: literature. I think any book lover will understand why. So begins a lifelong love affair with books that will take him away from his small life and into an idealized life of scholarship and marriage to a “higher-class” woman, which turns out to be less than ideal. It’s the story of one man’s struggle with American society and false dreams, and his power to carry on and find a measure of unexpected happiness. His life is also a recording of great events in American history and spans both world wars. It manages to completely capture and comment on society during that time period in an unobtrusive way – you almost don’t even realize it until you’re done reading. The best part of this book are the characters, all of which are nearly tangible they’re so well portrayed.

Favorite Quotes:

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, and all that he had not read.”

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

“In the University library he wandered through the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense.”

 

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.