Book Review: Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

I'm still obsessed with historical fiction, and will always make a beeline to any fictional writing based in the 1930's and 40's. World War Two still holds a fascination for me that I can't explain. I go for non-fiction too, but fiction will always be my main love. There is something about the fact that it COULD be real, because the written story will be based on events that actually happened at some point in time. It helps me imagine myself in the feet of the characters, living the lives that they did, thinking that maybe they did really exist, or someone like them was alive at the same time in the same area. All that to explain that my purchase of Ghita Schwarz' Displaced Persons was yet another random buy that I happened to come across when browsing the through the new book selection at St Mark's Bookstore. WW2 + Europe + survivors? It was a no-brainer, I grabbed it and immediately started reading it.

The story starts in 1945, just after the war and follows a small group of "displaced persons", the name given to concentration camp survivors and general survivors of the Nazi murdering machine, as they randomly find each other and fight to rebuild their lives as best as they can. The main character through the book is Pavel Mandl, and the narration follows him through his life, directly post-war around the Belsen camp and then post-immigration to the US with his new family and friends. The story sometimes skips to other characters, for example Fela, Pavel's wife; Chaim, the young boy who had survived the Holocaust by pure wit and intelligence and attached himself to Fela and Pavel, and Sima, Chaim's wife. You can find a full synopsis of the novel HERE.

I like that this book was written about survivors picking up the pieces and creating new lives for themselves, after losing everything, instead of being about the actual survival during the war. The narrative is written in such a way that you can hear the Yiddish, Polish and Russian inflections in the characters' voices, but it's so well done, that you don't even notice it outright, it just seems natural. The other point that I really liked about this book is that Schwarz focuses on the characters as normal people who have gone through traumatic experiences and continue to be normal people looking to survive and move on with their lives. The fact that they are survivors does not make them into super humans, they are just normal human beings with flaws and hopes and dreams, trying to make the most of what they have, while still trying to come to terms with the tragedies they have experienced.

By the end of the novel you feel as if you have known the characters all of your life and you don't want to leave them. I applaud Schwarz for writing such an emotional and real novel. If I am not mistaken this is her fictional debut so I can't wait to see what she comes up with next! I also LOVE the fact that she added a couple of pages to the end of the novel with titles of books about the subject, as well as a small synopsis for each book. For someone like me who continues to look for WW2 fiction, this is the best thing that an author can do!

More information:
Gita Schwarz official website

Anthropology of an American Girl - review & musings

I find it very, very difficult to categorise books. There are books I liked, there are books I loved. There are books I really didn’t enjoy but forced myself through anyway. There are books that I couldn’t get into, but went back to after months, even years, and loved. There are good books that I didn’t enjoy. There are books that are not considered “good” that I really loved. I read for several reasons, the main one being because I cannot remember a day in my life when I haven’t been reading one book. The other reasons are completely self-explanatory: I read to learn, to escape and to let my imagination run away from me. I am never bored, not just because I always have something to do or to see, but mainly because I always have a book to discover, to read, to finish. I live surrounded by books, as do/did my parents and my grandparents, my sister and my brother. I read fiction and non-fiction, classics and modern fiction. I love poetry, plays and prose. I love to read poetry out loud to my cat (she prefers French literature to English, but I think that is more because of her national pride and all that). Words inspire me, reading inspires me to write and vice versa.

I read many books that inspire me, I read many good to very good books, but there are only a few times a year that I read a book that hits me so deeply that it affects my entire being for the time I am reading it, as well as afterwards. I read a review of Hilary Thayer Hamann’s first novel Anthropology of an American Girl a while ago, and tried to bookmark it in my brain, but didn’t remember about it until I was browsing the new paperbacks at St Mark’s Bookshop a few weeks ago. Once I started it I went back to the Jade I was when I was 17 and 18. It’s as if I had a direct connection with the main character, Eveline Auerbach. I am probably not the only one who feels this way, but I am not kidding when I felt I was being literally pulled into the story and became Eveline. First love, second love, heartbreak, freedom, passion, thoughts… The last years of high school, growing up in a “bohemian” household, friends who know your fears and help you through them, fragility but so much strength. But then, halfway through the book Eveline and I became separated. We went our separate ways, she took a path I could not agree with, could not really understand, while I took another path, that of personal freedom from everything.

There is a very specific break in the story, between high school graduation and the beginning of college and it was at this point that Eveline and I became friends and I no longer saw her life through her eyes, as one, but by her side, through her narration.

To understand, you must read this novel. On the outside it appears to be another coming of age novel, girl becomes woman, loves and loses, to love again, but there is so much more to this than that. The prose is wonderfully well written, so much that instead of reading you feel that you are living the story. When Eveline was sad, I cried. When Eveline was depressed, I walked around in a haze. When Eveline walked away I threw the book on the ground in anger. What I am trying to say is that Hilary Thayer Hamann did a remarkable job of writing a novel that is right up there on my favourite novels that I will read over and over again and that will never cease to make me cry list. Right up there with Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to name a few. We go through Eveline’s late teens and early twenties, follow her from East Hampton to Manhattan, watch her grow, then wither, then grow again.

We all have an Eveline, a Harrison Rourke, a Jack, a Kate, a Rob and a Mark in our lives, whether we are male or female, they all exist. I know who they are in my life. At first I thought I could be Eveline, it appeared that I am not, but I still love her as a person. Person or character? Although the main character is female, the story is for everyone. Be prepared to be punched in the stomach and in the face, to bawl your eyes out and to want to run to the ocean and watch the waves. Just read this book – you won’t regret it.

(When I bought the book I thought I was giving myself a break and that this was going to be some fun, light reading. I was so wrong! I didn’t realize exactly how much it had affected me until I found myself crying at everything this week, even for my crying average it was over the top. For some reason this story just hit me right in the core).

“Everywhere there are angels.”

The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots From A Hidden War

This one caught my eye a few weeks ago while I was browsing through the aisles of the bookshop. Just like foreign war correspondents amaze me, war photographers do too. There is such a huge element of danger in taking THAT shot that will be published around the world, and then the inevitable questions of "but what did he/she do after the shot was taken?". I'm not going to go into the psychological questioning and trying to understand as I personally don't think you can answer those questions, but the Bang-Bang Club gives you some insight into the thought process and passion of photographers who follow and capture violence and war.

Written by Greg Marinovich and João Silva (manly from Greg Marinovich's eyes) about the period between the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the general elections of 1994 in South Africa. During these four years there was a tremendous amount of violence and death in the different townships, and Greg, João, with Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter, documented this, obtaining the name "Bang-Bang Club" through an article in the South African press published about them at the time.
The book describes the scenes, the violence, the people, the incomprehension of WHY people were continously killing each other, the emotions, the untimely deaths of both Ken Oosterbroek (killed by cross-fire that seriously injured Greg too) and Kevin Carter (who took his own life), and finally the joy of being a free and equal human again, through the eyes of a black family in one of the townships on the day of the elections.

I can't say that I am very knowledgeable about South African history, apart from the main parts: Boer War, Apartheid, extreme racism, Nelson Mandela, and finally the end of Apartheid. This book started giving me some insight into life in South Africa during and right after Apartheid, and I've started researching into more depth to learn more. I would really like to understand what instigated all of the violence during those four years, why it was continuously called "black on black violence", when a lot of it was most entirely triggered and enabled by law enforcement and different factions of the people still in power...

As a sidenote - Greg and João also describe some of their jobs outside of South Africa (Yougoslavia, Sudan...), a lot of backlash that came from the public about Kevin Carter's Pulitzer Price winning photograph of a starving Sudanese child, collapsed on the ground while being watched by a vulture in the background.

Anyway - I really could go on and on about this book. It's NOT an easy read in the slightest, and most of the photographs that are included are horrific (in the sense of the scenes that were captured), but it is a must read in my opinion.

I don't think I will ever understand how humans can be so utterly inhuman to each other.

More info here: The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from A Hidden War

Kristin Hersh - Rat Girl

I read and finished this book last week, after it having been at the top of my "to read" pile for over a month. I LOVE reading autobiographies, especially musicians' autobiographies, but I've read so many this year that I kept pushing it back, and was feeling a little reluctant about reading it.

Oh was I wrong... I should have known better! I loved Throwing Muses growing up, but was always more focused on Tanya Donnelly's career and music rather than Kristin Hersh's, so this actually made me learn about Kristin a lot more than I did before, and I even though I respected her before, I do thousandfold now.

Kristin took her diaries from when she was 19 (1985) and turned her thoughts, feelings and actions from that year into a memoir, interspersed with song lyrics. During this year Kristin is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, signs a record deal with 4AD Records and finds out she's pregnant. Her prose is so colourful and upbeat, even through her "darker" days, and I feel like anyone can relate to certain parts of her book, if not as a whole. I really loved the fact that I was reading a coming of age novel written from real experiences, by a real person who also happens to be an amazing musician.

Tania Glyde - Cleaning Up

Sub-title: "How I Gave Up Drinking And Lived"

I was on one of my usual lengthy bookstore browsing moments the other day and this book caught my eye. My first reaction was SHIT - I should have written this, she beat me to it! Followed by a sinking feeling in my stomach of "I'm never ever going to be a writer because I am just not DOING enough of it". Followed by a text sent to Meg to tell her I was going to buy it and read it. And so I did...

I've not had a drop of alcohol since January 3rd 2009. The two years leading up to my decision to stop drinking will forever be embedded in my mind (even the nights I don't remember because I was completely blacked out), and I don't feel like going over them and reanalyzing them again and again. I got through it. I'm still here, I didn't lose a limb or my brain, or my job. I functioned very well, never missing a day of work or a deadline or a dinner with a friend or an important event. However, if I had continued on the same path I probably wouldn't be here anymore, and that's pretty clear to me now.
I probably will never have a drop of alcohol again. And that's not a problem for me. Yes, I miss the confidence I had when I was drunk, but I have actually learnt to be a lot more confident without alcohol now. Actually be myself.

Anyway - this isn't about me. I'll probably write more and more about this subject at some point (or you can just go back and read my posts from 2007 and 2008 to get some kind of idea). This is about Tania's book.

I usually don't like this type of book. I tried and tried to read Prozac Nation and just wanted to shake her and tell her to get up and stop being such a whiny bitch (this coming from someone who suffers from the same illness - I just can't stand boring self-centered woe-is-me crap). So I was a little wary about reading Tania Glyde's book, but it is actually very readable, personal experiences mixed with fact, and a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour. Very British in fact. We Brits don't like to whine about ourselves, we prefer to make fun of ourselves and move on.
And it really portrays the main reason why women tend to try to drink as much as men, and how having willpower doesn't really help when you get to drink number 3.
Suggested read to anyone who has ever had an alcohol problem. Or who has lived or been friends with someone with an alcohol problem.

Tania Glyde's Website

By the way - whenever I talk about being sober, it is only for myself and for my own personal reasons. I don't judge anyone's drinking or not drinking, unless it affects me personally. And even then I don't judge. I just get pissed off.