My Story: A Personal Testament

My StoryMy Story: A Personal Testament by Michael Haas (2015)

Summary

Dr. Michael Haas tells the story of his life, growing up as an ethnic German in a small country village in what is now Serbia, enduring life in Europe during and after World War II, and ultimately moving to America and becoming a doctor.

Review

This is an autobiography that a relative of mine wrote and self-published for his family, so I’m going to leave out a review. It’s pretty cool to read the life story of someone you know.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Autobiographies
  • Europe during World War II
  • Danube Swabians
  • Overcoming hardships
  • Immigration to America
  • The life stories of my relatives

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Summary

Marie-Laure is a girl living in Paris with her father, who works for the Museum of Natural History. When she goes blind, her father makes her a model of the city that she learns by touching the miniature buildings and roads. When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee with what may be the museum’s most treasured jewel.

Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner tinkers with radios for fun and becomes an expert at how they work. He attracts the attention of a German official, who gets him a spot in an elite Hitler Youth academy, which leads him into the German military.

The two stories converge in the small coastal city of Saint-Malo, France.

Review

All the Light We Cannot See goes back and forth in time, following the two characters throughout World War II. The writing is beautiful and the ending is sad, but fitting. Having studied both German and French, I give it bonus points for throwing in occasional words and phrases in the two languages. Overall, I liked it and would recommend it if you like historical fiction.

Here’s a part I enjoyed, where a Frenchman talks about coal in a radio broadcast for children:

Consider a single piece [of coal] glowing in your family’s stove… That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million… Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into barks, twigs, stems. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years… And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it into the stove, and now that sunlight — sunlight one hundred million years old — is heating your home tonight.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • World War II
  • Beautiful prose and metaphors
  • Childhood interrupted by war
  • Blindness
  • Electronics (especially radios)
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  • Snippets of German and/or French languages

The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak is historical fiction about a young German girl living with foster parents during World War II. It is narrated by Death (a pretty interesting perspective), who begins the story with a small fact: you are going to die.

In spite of the macabre narrator and ultra depressing setting, The Book Thief is heart-warming and Liesel (the little German girl) provides hope and joy during such a dark time.

If you’re looking for a quick, light-hearted book with a happy ending, this is definitely not the right book for you, but I would otherwise recommend it to anyone. I loved the characters and this book really knew how to tug at your heartstrings.

Perhaps my favorite part is when Liesel finds herself in a library, which I quoted below. Book lovers will surely appreciate it.

“Jesus, Mary …”

She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder, she smiled.

That such a room existed!

Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise. She could feel the eyes of the woman traveling her body, and when she looked at her, they had rested on her face.

There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.

“Can I?”

The two words stood among acres and acres of vacant, wood-floored land. The books were miles away.

The woman nodded.

Yes, you can.

By the way, the movie adaptation will be released on November 15 (the trailer is below). It looks like it will be a beautiful movie and, from what I can tell, stay pretty true to the book. Although it’s missing from the trailer, the movie will apparently be narrated by Death. I’m really looking forward to seeing it!

Slaughterhouse-Five

This week, I read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which was #15 on my book list. I knew it was a war novel, but I wasn’t expecting science fiction. Because of this, my interpretation of the book might from others.
Slaughterhouse-Five

Plot Summary

The story of Billy Pilgrim (the book’s protagonist) doesn’t actually start until Chapter 2. Vonnegut used the first chapter as more of a preface, written in his own voice to introduce the the story that follows. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist who finds himself thrust into World War II in Germany. Billy is a flawed and pathetic character who gets captured by the Germans and taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden, along with other prisoners. Shortly after arriving in Dresden, there is a bombing and ensuing firestorm that destroys the city. Billy and the other prisoners survive, but 135,000 of Dresden’s residents were killed (the actual number is estimated to be around 25,000). So it goes.

What makes Billy unique is that he can (or believes he can) travel through time. He is abducted by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is put in a zoo to entertain the Tralfamadorians. The Tralfamadorians don’t see time as linear, like humans do; instead, they see all moments in time simultaneously. They are fatalists, cognizant of what we perceive as the past, present, and future, but powerless to change it. Billy adopts their philosophy and, eventually, the Tralfamadorians return him to earth.

Although I’ve written the plot summary linearly, in the book, it’s told entirely out of sequence because of Billy’s frequent jumps through time. He experiences pre-war, war, and post-war events out of order, without having control over the jumps.

My Thoughts

Who knows if Billy Pilgrim really experienced time travel or if it was all in his head. It seems likely to me that it was a coping mechanism. Billy experienced some very traumatic events in his life, most notably during the war (especially the bombing of Dresden), but also outside of the war, in events like the plane crash. I think Billy was driven mad by the trauma and unconsciously used the Tralfamadorians and time travel as a way to comfort himself, especially because aspects of his delusions (if that’s what they were) seemed to echo things he saw or experienced in real life.

Billy’s new way of looking at life was to see it as something timeless, with moments from the past just as alive as moments in the present and future. He learns to accept the things he can’t change, even when they’re senseless tragedies like the Dresden bombing.

My favorite part of Slaughterhouse-Five was when Billy was watching a movie backwards about American bombers in World War II:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.