Book review: ‘We All Wore Stars’ by Theo Coster

More than 60 years after World War II, Theo Coster, a Dutch toymaker, sets about finding the students with whom he attended the Amsterdam Jewish Lyceum in 1941. One of them was Anne Frank.

Today Anne Frank’s Diary Of A Young Girl stands as one of the most important and heartbreaking documents to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust. To escape Nazi persecution, the Frank family famously went into hiding in a “Secret Annex” in Amsterdam, where they lived for two years until they were betrayed to the German Gestapo. Anne used her diary to detail her isolation and loneliness, her hopes and dreams, the boredom of living in confinement — and, of course, the constant fear of discovery.

But We All Wore Stars isn’t just Anne’s story. Author Theo Coster was a young classmate of Anne’s, a fellow 13-year-old without any ability to predict the horrors that were to come. Having survived the war in hiding, Coster fled to Israel and went on to create the popular board game “Guess Who?” Now in his 80s, Coster has been slowly sifting through his memories of the Holocaust and attempting to reconcile his survival against the millions who perished. Tracking down his former schoolmates, including Jacqueline van Maarsen, was part of a process of healing — and creating a voice with which to argue with dissenters who claim the Holocaust’s atrocities never happened.

The Holocaust is a tragedy I’ve spent many years studying. As a history minor in college, I took countless classes on American and World History — for fun. Among them was a Jewish Studies class focusing exclusively on the where, when, how and why of the Holocaust. Students openly cried during lectures, myself included, and our professor actually had to leave the room once to regain her composure. Some of the images we saw and stories we read will be sealed in my heart forever. It’s impossible to discuss the horrible scale of the Holocaust — or to even begin to comprehend the logistics required to execute the genocide of six million people.

And Coster doesn’t try. This isn’t a history lesson — in fact, considering how slim the memoir is, Coster assumes you understand the basics of the war and are familiar with Anne herself. We All Wore Stars is an exploration of how five of Anne’s former classmates survived, all going “underground” to avoid being shipped off to concentration or extermination camps, and Coster meets up with them again to discuss Anne and her short — but extraordinary — life.

No major revelations about Anne are revealed, but it’s fascinating to hear others’ take on her personality during their school years. Of the five featured, Jacqueline was probably closest to Anne. She survived the war believing, as many did, that the Frank family had successfully escaped to Switzerland. Anne’s father, the sole survivor of their family of four, had the heartbreaking task of delivering news of Anne’s death to Jacque. And Jacque was one of the first people to actually see The Diary after the war.

We All Wore Stars really humanizes Anne, smoothing away her fame to create a portrait of a girl who was just that: a girl. A 13-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood, ruined and robbed of her childhood as so many were. Described as clever and silly, confident and outspoken, none of Anne’s classmates had an inkling she was destined to become a writer. No one could have known that her singular voice would rise from the Holocaust as bright and clear as any — or that Diary Of A Young Girl would go on to be published in more than 60 languages, and remains the second most-read non-fiction book ever. Behind, you know, The Bible.

Coster describes his own feelings regarding how he is portrayed in Anne’s diary, noting with some bemusement that Anne calls him “a rather boring kid.” Called Maurice at birth, Coster adopted the name “Theo” as a less “Jewish-sounding” alternative as he tried to pass as a non-Jewish friend’s nephew during his time in hiding. The name stuck and has been legally changed, and Coster seems to view this as a way of shedding his pre-Holocaust identity. I can’t say I blame him.

We All Wore Stars works best as another glimpse at innocent people torn apart by Adolf Hitler’s regime. Though Anne Frank is the one to bring the classmates together again, the book is as much about their personal journeys as Anne’s life and death. Both a tribute to their famous classmate and everyone murdered by the Nazi Germany, We All Wore Stars is a moving look at life, humanity and friendship. Readers fascinated by Anne and interested in the personal voices of Holocaust survivors will find plenty to ponder here.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 023011444X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss

A giant writing desk with an illustrious history unites many narrators in this stunning work of literature, a book that left me breathless. Nominated for the Indie Lit Awards, Great House was my first read as a literary fiction panelist. And if it’s any sign of the caliber of the other four nominated novels, I’m in for a treat.

To say author Nicole Krauss has a way with words would be akin to stating the sky is big, or the sun is hot. If I sat down to quote every memorable passage of this unique, intricate story, I’d never finish writing.

Along the same vein, I don’t quite know how to describe the plot . . . except to say that, amazingly, everything (and everyone) is connected — although in most cases, it’s not immediately clear how. Told in alternating viewpoints, we’re introduced to characters from around the world — New York, London, Israel — who all have something in common: their connection to a desk, by turns a piece to be revered or reviled. Writers populate Krauss’ rich landscape, taking turns figuring out why they write — and what. And those who love them — or misunderstand them, or injure them — are left to make sense of the giant caverns swallowing their loved ones’ lives.

I could introduce you to some characters, share a bit of their back stories. I could give examples of Krauss’ stunning prose and share the meanings I think I found within the text. But I think Great House is best discovered on your own. It’s not a pleasant saga — more than once, the grief was crushing — but it felt important. Once I closed the final page, still teeming with unanswered questions, the first thing I wanted to do was find someone with whom to discuss it. It’s a book you’ll want a friend to read, too, so you can bounce ideas and challenges off each other, nudging the puzzle pieces of the story around until you think you sense a pattern. But then again, maybe you don’t.

It’s also a book you could read twice . . . or maybe should read twice. Inside the somber prose is a sense of mystery, of finding something hidden for you and you alone. Like the last Easter egg buried in a cubby hole until fall, I feel like I could open Great House to any number of pages for the rest of my life and still not find everything Krauss hid there. At the end, knowing what I know about the characters and the desk prompted me to flip right back to the beginning.

It’s about family, loss and what is taken from us — and how we get it back. It’s about secrets and grief and love — who can give it, who can take it away. It’s about mystery, and whether we can truly know another person. It’s about the inevitability of death and our slow climb toward the end of it all . . . and what’s on the other side.

It was often confusing, yes. The separate narratives didn’t seem to fit together at all, and I often felt annoyed that just when I thought I’d really gotten to know one narrator, I was introduced to another — but those are minor issues compared to the overall beauty of the writing. Rarely uplifting but more than worthwhile, Great House isn’t a book I’ll forget.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0393079988 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Booking Through Thursday: Getting graphic

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday, shall we?

Last Saturday (May 2nd) is Free Comic Book Day! In celebration of comics and graphic novels, some suggestions:

• Do you read graphic novels/comics? Why do/don’t you enjoy them?
• How would you describe the difference between “graphic novel” and “comic”? Is there a difference at all?
• Say you have a friend who’s never encountered graphic novels. Recommend some titles you consider landmark/”canonical.”

Funny I should see this question today . . . mostly because my ex-boyfriend has been trying to “convert” me into a graphic novel reader for years! Most recently, earlier this week — and I steadfastly ignored his requests.

Well, sort of.

mausI have read a few graphic novels — all at his request. And I enjoyed them! Art Spiegelman’s Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History is most notable — definitely an incredible work . . . and I never thought I could cry while reading a graphic novel. Maus is the story of the Spiegelman family — Vladek and Anja, survivors of the Holocaust, and their son Art. The novel takes us through Vladek and Anja’s lives and their ultimate arrival at Auschwitz, but it’s also the story of Art’s relationship with his dad and his mother, before she committed suicide. Certainly heavy subject material — and much heavier than I anticipated a graphic novel could be (I’m prejudiced, I know).

In Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, the Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis portrayed as cats. Art frequently interjects the unraveling story of World War II with his conversations with his father, often irritated and full of miscommunication. Art’s relationship with his father was extraordinarily strained, even though both may have wished it otherwise. And the graphic novel seemed to be a superb vehicle for juxtaposing the horrors of the past with the quiet, mundane nature of the present in New York City. I don’t know that this story, as a traditional novel, could ever have worked . . . the images are so striking and so powerful, it’s as if they’re burned on your retinas. You forget that we’re dealing with “cats” and “mice” here — you know they’re people. You know they’re people others loved dearly.

So I can’t say I don’t like graphic novels . . . I gave Maus a resounding 5-stars on LibraryThing, and I’m going to grab the next installment soon! But I can say that as a whole, I’m just not into graphic novels / comics (and I couldn’t really tell you the difference between them, other than the length of the story). What I really love about reading is my ability to create worlds inside my head — my ability to actually “see” the characters, the setting, the storyline playing out. I love letting the words surround me and getting lost in them, searching for more or less than what’s there. I don’t contest that you can’t be really moved by a graphic novel — I was — but I don’t think that the emotional impact on me is the same. And it’s not so easy looking for allusions and subtext in a graphic novel, is it?

Maybe I’m just being close-minded about the whole. Palmer would argue that’s the case! He’s passed many graphic novels along to me, and most of them are still stacked up by my bed. Maybe for the upcoming plane ride! We should all strive to expand our literary horizons, I think.

Book review: ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

book_thief One of the things I love best about reading is that moment you crack the spine of a novel and realize, without a doubt, that the literary adventure on which you’re about to embark will change your life — your entire view of the world. And for me, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is exactly one of those books.

Death tells the story of the book thief in question — Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in Molching, Germany during the onset of World War II. Nine-year-old Liesel arrives traumatized following the death of her younger brother and her forced separation from her father, taken away under suspicion of Communist leanings by the Hitler regime, and her mother, whom she sees for the last time stranded on a train platform.

Loud-mouthed and abrasive Rosa immediately sets to work straightening Liesel out, but Hans — or Papa — embraces the young girl, teaching her to read the beloved book she’s carried with her from her brother’s snow-covered grave. As Liesel battles nightmare after nightmare in her new bed in a new town, far from the only home she’s ever known, Hans patiently sits with her each evening, comforting her and playing his beloved accordion. A survivor of “the Great War,” or World War I, Hans has some of his own nightmares to face. And one of those Great War memories eventually comes back to meet him face to face — and ask for his assistance, and safety, during one of the most terrifying times in world history.

As she gets adjusted to her new life slowly, Liesel befriends the Steiners, the family next-door on Himmel Street. Young, ambitious and yellow-haired Rudy Steiner takes an immediate shine to Liesel and the two promptly become both inseparable friends and partners in crime. As Poland is invaded in 1939 and the war begins in earnest, Rudy and Liesel further descend into thievery. It starts with a few dozen apples with the other rebellious kids in the neighborhood — after all, everyone is hungry. Everyone. But Liesel is only interested in quenching her thirst for knowledge, eventually befriending the morose wife of the town mayor. Liesel visits Ilsa Hermann in her mansion on the hill, collecting the washing for her mother, and is able to pour through the thousands of titles in the Hermann library. The book thief is overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of the stories — and it’s these very stories that calm the terrified residents of Himmel Street as the war reaches home, sending them all into makeshift bomb shelters. And help them say goodbye to their loved ones.

It’s hard for me to even describe this book with any clarity, or string along some sentences to talk about how emotional I am after finishing it. Everything I think of seems inadequate — it can’t possibly do it justice. This is a story about love, fear, loss, death, life, family, friendship, evil and, ultimately, hope. The book is divided into several parts and, as mentioned, Death narrates the entire tale — talking about how haunted he/she is by humans, by their willingness to survive, by the way they somehow endure despite everything. Scenes I can’t imagine seeing — feelings I can’t imagine feeling — losses I can’t believe anyone could face. They’re all in The Book Thief, laid bare but told so poetically tears will spring to your eyes. I absolutely sympathized with Death, the one told by “the Boss” to gather up the souls of the dead and carry them from the wrecked, ruined bodies strewn across Dachau, and Stalingrad, and London.

Five hundred souls . . . I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.

I loved the fact that Death would foreshadow the entire story, giving us glimpses of an inevitable future as we read along. It didn’t bother me in the least and, when he explicitly tells us that he’s “ruining the ending” of the story just in the hopes of not catching us unaware, I actually appreciated that. I knew the outcome of the entire novel — knew, more likely than not, who would live and die — but that didn’t ruin it in the slightest for me. I was so emotional upon completing the novel, I was happy I didn’t have to be caught up in a terrible shock for the last 30 pages or so. Although plenty of surprises were still there, I had more time to prepare myself for the end.

And, like Liesel, we are constantly reminded of the power of words — of books. What was Hitler without his rhetoric? As Death and Liesel both point out continually, he was nothing more than a tiny tyrant full of eloquent speeches, someone who tapped into fear and anger and resentment after World War I and exploited every advantage. Liesel recognizes the words’ ability to transform and empower and uses them, too — to help ordinary Germans, and the Jews, too. And one Jew in particular.

I don’t want to this review on a depressing note, though — because The Book Thief was anything but depressing. It was inspiring and emotional to realize the adversity mankind has faced, to see the sorrows some endure and still carry on, to realize that people who stood up in places like the dirty gutters of Himmel Street against unimaginable pain and humiliation must surely have a special place in Heaven — especially if Death has anything to say about it. I finished the book sitting on a swing in my back yard, staring up at the sun on an absolutely perfect early spring day. When I closed the last pages, I leaned over to pet my dog on the head and immediately started counting my blessings. There are many. And novels like The Book Thief help us remember what life is really all about — loving, caring and being together. Helping one another. And I’m going to work a little harder to remember that every day.

Don’t miss this book — don’t skip over it because of the heavy subject matter, or push it to the bottom of the TBR stack because of its sheer heft (576 pages, but trust me — they go fast!). Read it and share it with others. Pass it on and on and on.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0375842209 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg