Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Told in a duel narrative structure, Blum’s novel largely focuses on the life of Trudy Schlemmer’s mother, Anna, during World War II in Germany with occasionally glimpses into the lives of Trudy and Anna in the United States during the 1990s. A professor of German history at the University of Minnesota, Trudy has launched an audio-visual interview project where she asks non-Jewish Germans about their experiences in Nazi Germany; a project that presumably draws on Blum’s work with the Shoah Foundation, an organization that conducts audio-visual interviews with survivors of the Holocaust.

Anna refuses to discuss her experiences with her daughter insisting that their lives before she and three-year-old Trudy went to live with an American solider in Minnesota are to be forgotten, to be left in the past. Trudy’s only source of information is an old photograph she finds hidden among her aging mother’s possessions: a portrait of Anna, toddler Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmführer of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Trudy is convinced she is the child of a Nazi officer complicating her already tenuous friendship with Reiner, a survivor of the Holocaust, incensed over her determination to apply logic to the explainable, to give voices to those who robbed others of their lives.

Books focusing on the perspective and roles of German women during World War II are rather few and far between possibly because, as Reiner says, these women were complicit in the crimes of the regime and giving them voices opens the door for revisionist history, for absolution and pity of the participants in the Nazi regime. (We could debate this assertion all day, but I would say it is the typical response to questions of whether or not the experience of non-Jewish German women is a worthy field of study.) Anna is immediately cast in a sympathetic light — she hides the Jewish father of a baby, her father is a brute who moves in lockstep with the regime, she risks her life to deliver bread to political prisoners at Buchenwald, she is brutalized and raped by the Obersturmführer — and the German men and women Trudy interviews are unapologetically racist. So, really, the novel skirts the issues it raises by making Anna a truly exceptional case.

Anna is also a difficult character to understand. The loss of Max, her daughter’s father, clearly had a tremendous impact on her as did her treatment at the hands of the Obersturmführer, but to internalize that pain and still allow her daughter to believe her father is a Nazi is unimaginable and unforgivable. She goes to great lengths to protect Trudy (known as Trudie in Germany), to make sure the little girl has enough to eat and a future after the war, but she is so utterly cold towards her daughter that it seems like she blames Trudy for what occurred during the war.

Occasionally, the writing is clunky and dissolves into repetitive ruminations on the sexual acts between the Obersturmführer and Anna. It also took me some time to adjust to the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue of the characters as it is not always clear who is speaking. But, overall, I thought the novel raised some interesting questions about the role of German women in the Holocaust, their culpability, and their guilt. Such questions should, at least, encourage discussion at book club.

Book Mentioned:

  • Blum, Jenna. Those Who Save Us. New York: Harcourt, 2005. Print. 479 pgs. ISBN: 9780156031660. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Harcourt. Retrieved: October 16, 2014.

Read-a-Thon Updates (October 2014)

Welcome to my read-a-thon update post! I shared my bookstack and read-a-thon plans this past Wednesday. Today, I’ll be using this post as my main site to update cheerleaders and readers on my progress, but I will also be doing quick updates on twitter. Scroll down for updates!


Hour 1 (8:00 am EST): In my excitement over the read-a-thon, I started reading Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason on Wednesday. I thought I’d get ahead start on the novel and make it easy to jump right in this morning. Alas, the crime thriller sucked me and I ended up finishing Indriðason’s novel that night. Whoops! I do have two more novels by Indriðason on my shelf — Hypothermia and Strange Shores — so I might add one those to my stack. For now, though, I’m headed out the door to get myself moving this morning. If I lay down, I’m afraid I might fall back asleep. Since I finished Drood by Dan Simmons yesterday, I will be listening to Matilda by Roald Dahl on audio during my walk and plan to pick up Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan when I return. Happy reading to all!

Hour 4 (11:35 am EST): I’m back from my walk — ten miles, including the quick trip to the grocery store on the way back — and I’ve finished the first seventeen tracks (out of twenty-one) of Matilda. I’ll finish the audiobook as I unpack my groceries and prepare lunch. Afterwards, I’ll be picking up Homeless Bird.

Hour 8 (3:00 pm EST): I’ve finished two books since my last update — Matilda by Roald Dahl and Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan! Highly recommend both of them. I started reading The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane but started to nod off so I grabbed a cappuccino at Starbucks to get my energy levels back up and am now on page 60 of What Would Mr. Darcy Do? by Abigail Reynolds. During Hours 5 and 8, I participated in the #shelfie and 140 Character Cheering mini-challenges (see my answers below).

Hour 11 (6:25 pm EST): I finished another book! I also decided to pick up Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll on audio so I could get some cooking, cleaning, and cheering done, and I am now utterly convinced audiobooks are the way to go when it comes to the read-a-thon, especially for cheering. I’ve been able to leave comments on participants’ blogs and randomly tweet people encouragement while continuing to “read”. Two birds, one stone.

Hour 15 (10:00 pm EST): Fourth book is finished! I’m listening to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as I write this update — about twenty minutes or so left. I also started In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pinott, a murder-mystery that should keep me awake until I turn the last page, which I’ll dive back into just as soon as I finish this update and folding my laundry. Three hours late, but I finally answered the Mid-Event Survey below. I also participated in Dose of Darcy on the main read-a-thon page.

Hour 16 (11:45 pm EST): Big yawns here. I am a little over 100 pages away from finishing In the Shadow of Gotham, but the desire for sleep is getting stronger than the desire to find out whodunit. So I’m tucking myself into bed and maybe, just maybe I’ll wake up in time to join back in for the last hour or so. Happy reading to those who are continuing on!

Hour 22 (6:15 am EST): I’m awake! Albeit, a little bleary eyed. I’m going to try to finish In the Shadow of Gotham in the last hour and 45 minutes of the read-a-thon.

Hour 24 (8:00 am EST): I squeaked by the hair on my chiny-chin-chin and finished In the Shadow of Gotham. That means I finished six books — a very, very successful read-a-thon! (Not being in university certainly helped.) I’ve answered the End of Event Survey below. Thank you to all the organizers, hosts, and cheerleaders for making this a great event!

Where I stand overall:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Caroll) – Finished!
  • Anne Frank and Me (Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld) — Finished!
  • Matilda (Roald Dahl) — Finished!
  • Homeless Bird (Gloria Whelan) — Finished!
  • In the Shadow of Gotham (Stefanie Pinott) — Finished!
  • The Night Quest (Fiona McFarlane) — 5/241 pages
  • What Would Mr. Darcy Do? (Abigail Reynolds) — Finished!


Continue reading

Zone One by Colson Whitehead (Abandoned)

Mark Spitz is a sweeper — a civilian employed by the government in Buffalo to walk through lower Manhattan and kill “malfunctioning” victims of the plague. These victims exist in a catatonic state and sit in front of their televisions or computers transfixed by these remnants of their former lives. Non-malfunctioning victims, whom we would call zombies, have already been eradicated by the military as it successfully reclaimed the island of Manhattan south of Canal Street, also known as Zone One.

Whitehead’s novel switches between the present and Mark’s struggle to survive during the worst of the epidemic, but it is written in a stream of consciousness that is impossible to follow in audiobook format. I kept checking to make sure my iPod had not randomly switched to shuffle because the shift between these two time periods is so muddled and abrupt. Spitz muses on every minor detail in verbose, overwrought prose because, I suspect, Whitehead wanted to create a literary novel out of the post-apocalypse genre.

The reason I picked up the novel — the construction of society following a post-apocalyptic event — was barely touched upon by the author. Buffalo, the new seat of the government, has established camps for survivors of the plague and this fact is briefly mentioned in a sinister tone by Spitz. But this opportunity for social commentary is bypassed, and I am still not sure after listening to sixty percent of the audiobook how some victims of the plague become zombies and others become catatonic duds known as “Skels”. After one more diversion into the past where Spitz laments his grade point average, I decided I was far too bored and far too lost amidst Spitz’s river of thoughts to continue any further.

As for Beresford Bennett’s narration, he has a very deep voice which works well for the male characters. But the female characters sounded very breathy a la Marilyn Monroe, and it hard to tell the few female characters in this novel apart from one another. Certainly does not help alleviate any confusion with this tale.

Book Mentioned:

  • Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. Read by Beresford Bennett. New York: Books on Tape, 2011. Audiobook. 9 hours, 57 minutes. ISBN: 9780307940940. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Books on Tape. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

Set against the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum for national sovereignty, O’Neill’s novel introduces readers to the Tremblay family, a colorful cast of characters whose identities are entwined with the independence movement by a documentary produced about their lives during the first referendum in 1980.

Told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Nouschka, the novel follows her as she returns to school after dropping out at sixteen with her twin brother, Nicolas, marries a mental ill man, becomes a mother, and attempts to wrestle with the meaning of family and parenthood after rather unexpectedly meeting her biological mother for the first time.

At the heart of Nouschka’s dysfunctional family is her twin brother, Nicolas, and their unusually close bond leads to whispers amongst the bohemian Québécois community they live in that the twins are incestuous (the fact that they share a bed at nineteen does not help matters). But Nicolas has problems of his own — he cannot scrounge up the three thousand dollars he owes in child support and, therefore, cannot see his young son — and his condemnation of Nouschka’s decision to marry Raphaël drives a wedge between Nouschka and her brother.

Nouschka has never been close to her father, Etienne Tremblay, a Québécois folk singer famous in the 1970s who is determined to see Quebec separate from Canada, and she is rather resentful of him for taking her brother and her on tour with him and for allowing the documentary of their lives to be produced.

The Québécois who watched them on television have a particular vision of the Tremblay family, and both Nouschka and Nicolas struggle to escape the identity of them as perfect Québécois children that strangers on the street affix to them. It is an identity that keeps them trapped — unable to grow up into the adults they need to be, unable to stop longing for the mother who abandoned them or the perfect Québécois family people think they have.

Gosh, the American cover is garish compared to the international cover, isn’t it? Not a color palette that would lead me to pick the novel up had it not been shortlisted for the 2014 Giller Prize. Although, the clothing worn by the model on the cover matches the quirkiness Nouschka and her community are said to have.

It is this quirkiness, this oddity that immediately pulled me into the novel. Noushka and the rest of the Trembleys are so unique it was impossible for me to resist learning more about their lives and, particularly, the outcome of Noushka’s struggle to forge an identity separate from her family through education, marriage, and the creation of her own family.

There are several points in the novel where the events seem ludicrous and unimaginable, but I also wondered if creating such an extreme in the Trembley family was meant to illuminate the struggles of fitting into a minority-majority society. As francophones, the Trembley family is able to converse with their fellow francophones in Quebec but Noushka’s limited grasp of English restricts her job prospects, her family’s lower economic standing limits their ability to travel outside of Montréal or to right the familial wrongs committed against them with their own children, and their vision of a sovereign Quebec  — or, at least, the role assigned to them by the Québécois community as such — consigns them to a minority movement within the provenience.

Any one of these experiences could feel isolating but all of them? Is it any wonder Noushka still shares a bed with her brother? He is, after all, the only member of her family who has been there since day one and the only one she can call on when things become difficult. Neither of them has the parent they need to guide them through life, to help them feel safe and secure in their identity as minorities, and even with each other they still struggle to find their way through life.

All that said, I do think the novel could have benefited from some ruthless editing. The narrative drags in places due, in part, to the overwhelming number of minority-majority situations, and the backdrop of the referendum is often lost as the story progresses. Still, a rather interesting read given the recent Scottish referendum and the questions it posses about the formation of identity and the idyllic nostalgia affixed to missed opportunities whether that be having a mother or succeeding as an independent nation.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • O’Neill, Heather. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Print. 416 pgs. ISBN: 9780374162665. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Retrieved: October 12, 2014.

Read-a-Thon Reads


October is one of my favorite months in the year — the changing leaves, the crisp and cool weather. Perfect atmosphere for curling up with a good book, especially during Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-Thon on Saturday. (Of course, I say this as the temperature climbs into the high 70s and the humidity is “ponytail weather”, according to the local weatherman.)

This is my fifth read-a-thon, but I haven’t been able to participate for the last two years due to university. (The read-a-thon is always scheduled during midterms in October and the big push towards finals in April.) I am very excited to no longer have that obstacle in my way and to be able to participate this time around. So excited, in fact, that I rejoined twitter in order to make cheering people on easier. Feel free to follow me there, if you are so inclined.

I selected seven titles — a mix of library books and from my personal collection — for the read-a-thon. Looking over my posts from the last four go-arounds, shorter books motivate me more than longer novels so I focused on those books as well as ones with a suspenseful element.

  • Anne Frank and Me (Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld)
  • Homeless Bird (Gloria Whelan)
  • In the Shadow of Gotham (Stefanie Pinott)
  • Jar City (Arnaldur Indriðason)
  • News from Heaven (Jennifer Haigh)
  • The Night Quest (Fiona McFarlane)
  • What Would Mr. Darcy Do? (Abigail Reynolds)

Not photographed is my current audiobook, Drood by Dan Simmons. I’m listening to this one for Trish’s #droodalong and have about 30 percent of the novel left. I’ll be listening to this during breaks to rest my eyes and move around.

Eight books may seem like a lot, but I’m not putting any pressure on myself to finish a certain number or read for a certain number of hours. I’m just excited to be participating once more. Happy reading to all!