Great Reads

Sem-Sandberg, Steve. The Emperor of Lies

In 1940, the second largest Jewish ghetto in Poland was established in the town of Lodz. Placed in control of this ghetto by the Nazi regime was a figure still controversial and compelling today, Mordechai Rumkowski.  A failed businessman, a bullying insurance agent, Rumkowski was by all accounts brash, egomaniacal, and deeply insecure. But he could also be oddly generous and loving, fancying himself a savior to the weak and the innocent. After his wife’s death in 1936, he established a Kinderkolonie, an orphanage for Jewish children. He encouraged the orphans to look on him as a father figure, going so far as to sprinkle candy in their midst on his visits, ensuring they would always run up to and after him. 

And, just as he tried to protect the orphans under his care, he attempted to protect the Jewish inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto. He knew, or believed he knew, that if he could only demonstrate to the Nazis the usefulness of the Jews, they would be spared the camps. And so he turned the entire ghetto into a massive industrial complex, forcing the inhabitants to work long hours under brutal conditions, producing furniture and clothing for German citizens and camoflage, foorwear, jackets, and buckles for the Wehrmacht. 

And so the central question in Sem-Sandberg’s novel is this: Was Rumkowski a collaborator or a liberator? A sinner, or a saint? A good man who made a difficult choice, or an evil man exploiting his position for personal gain? 

The novel opens 2 years into the life of the ghetto, when Rumkowski is forced to annouce that 20,000 inhabitants will be deported from th ghetto, sent to the camps. It goes backwards and forwards in time from there, exploring both Rumkowski’s past and personal life as well as the lives and daily torments of the inhabitants of the ghetto. While Rumkowski is the central figure, the author’s scope is much wider, utilizing an immersive richness of detail and a large, almost Dickensian cast to illuminate this place and this time in a three-dimensional fashion seldom attempted in fiction. Sem-Sandberg’s use of archival materials in reconstructing ghetto life lends his novel historical accuracy and a certain legitimacy, while the fiction format allows the reader to empathize and understand the plight of those within ghetto walls in a way non-fiction seldom does. A challenging, difficult, and ultimately illuminating work.

Watson, S. J. Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go to Sleep is SJ Watson's first novel, a thriller in the mold of Christopher Nolan's film on the impermanence of memory, Memento.  The novel's heroine and storyteller, Chrissie, awakes in a strange bed, with a strange man sleeping beside her.  A look in the bathroom mirror reveals a woman some 20 years older than she last remembers.  Who is she, and how did she get here? 

Able to recall only a few fragmented, disconnected memories, Chrissie comes to find that she has a rare form of amnesia, the result of some sort of head trauma suffered many years earlier.  She can recall a few memories from before her accident, and can create new ones, but is unable to retain the vast majority: one night of sleep and her mind is wiped clean.  A call from her neurologist, Dr. Nash (like everyone else, a stranger to Chrissie), results in the revelation that she has been keeping a detailed journal of events for the past few weeks.  It is this journal that we read, following along as Chrissie makes unsettling discoveries about her past and present.

Before I Go to Sleep is a quick, compelling novel that will keep you guessing at every turn.  How did Chrissie lose her memory?  Why does Dr. Nash ask her to keep her journal a secret from Ben, her husband?  Whose truth does she believe?  Watson's writing style - simple yet evocative, never trite - elevates this beyond your average thriller.

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Tremain, Rose. Trespass

Two wildly dysfunctional pairs of adult siblings find the paths of their lives colliding with volatile results in this quiet psychological thriller.  Anthony Verey, a once-successful and sought-after London antiques dealer whose life is now on the decline, takes refuge in the company of his sister, Veronica. Veronica now lives a happy, quiet life in the Cévennes region of southern France with her lover, Kitty, an amateur watercolorist.  Anthony’s trespassing on their lives causes friction between Veronica and Kitty, who cannot understand Veronica’s unswerving loyalty to the unpleasant and arrogant Anthony.  When Anthony, seduced by the landscape, determines to sell off the remains of his life in London and buy a house in the area, Kitty is dismayed. Anthony’s rigid perfectionism means that only one house fits his standards…the Mas Lunel, owned now by aging Aramon. Aramon’s sister, Audrun, lives in a ramshackle house on the same property. The two have a long and brutally abusive history and Audrun is simply waiting for Aramon to die so that she can claim the Mas. But Anthony’s interest in purchasing the building and land threatens that goal, and only disaster can result.

 

Deeply flawed characters and a vivid, though untamed and arid setting perfectly complement Tremain’s tale of dark secrets and years-long grudges come to a head.

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Coniff, Richard. The Species Seekers: heroes, fools, and the mad pursuit of life on Earth

Until the 1830s, the word “scientist” didn’t exist and biology, botany, and related sciences were not professional fields of study for which practitioners studied at universities, but were the purview of dedicated amateurs. The late 1700s and the 1800s saw the rise of the naturalist, beginning with Carolus Linnaeus’s creation of a methodical and organized classification system for species.  Naturalists traveled the world, braving the most adverse and sometimes fatal of weather and geography, all for the pure joy of discovery and the lesser joy of monetary remuneration from museums and collectors back home.  Coniff profiles these pioneers and their discoveries, while simultaneously discussing the importance of the naturalists’ findings on our understanding of our own place in nature.

 

Compelling, meticulously researched, and yet accessible to scientific amateurs, The Species Seekers is fascinating reading.

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Donoghue, Emma. Room

Jack is five years old. He’s spent his entire life living in Room, an 11’x11’ space he shares with his mother, Ma.  Jack is happy with his life. Ma teaches him reading and tells him stories and lets him watch just a little bit of TV and breastfeeds him when he wants it and at night, he sleeps in Wardrobe just in case Old Nick comes in the night. Old Nick is the keeper of Room, and he brings their food and occasional treats, and at night he sometimes visits Ma and makes the bed squeak.  Though Jack doesn’t know it, the whole world he sees on TV is actually real and his Ma came from there originally. Old Nick took her seven years ago and put her into Room and now, with Jack getting so big and old, Ma knows they can’t live in such a small space together much longer. Ma tells Jack the truth and Jack doesn’t want to believe it at first. But then, he has to be very brave and help save his Ma from Old Nick. The outside world is very scary and other people are very strange, but Jack is smart and strong and he thinks he can handle it. But can Ma, after seven years locked away from her own Ma and father and brother?

Donoghue’s latest novel is intense, frightening, and, at times, surprisingly funny. Told entirely from the perspective of Jack, whose voice is simultaneously naïve and amazingly mature, the reader is distanced slightly from the misery of his mother. In some ways, this makes the story easier to bear. And in others, it is far more creepy. Jack’s complete acceptance of his strange world is at times chilling. An important book in many ways.

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