Friday, June 1, 2018

Literary Birthday Book Reviews for June

I must remind readers that these monthly reviews are based on books randomly selected off two ultimate reading lists: 1001 Children's Books to Read Before You Grow Up and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First books from each list were sorted by author's birthday. Then sub lists are sorted randomly online. Surprisingly the authors and books selected this month complement each other very well. Both authors are from Germany, both have WWII stories, and both of their chosen books are part of a trilogy!

Our children's author, Judith Kerr, celebrates her birthday on June 14, 1923, and at the age of 95 is still writing and illustrating books! Her latest children's book, Mister Cleghorn’s Seal, was published in 2015. She is known for her series of books about a cat named Mog. Mog is a tabby cat who gets into all sorts of situations and even starred in a Sainsbury Christmas video, where Kerr herself makes a cameo appearance. As a “mother” of two tabby cats, these books will definitely be added to my ever-growing “to-read list.” 

Kerr's autobiographical story, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Out of the Hitler Time #1), is chosen to be featured this month. She won The Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) for this book in 1974. An annual award, established in 1956 by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth to recognize outstanding works of children's literature. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit tells the story of Anna and her family who must flee Germany when Hitler takes office. Like her character, the author and her family left Germany in 1933 to escape Nazism, and ultimately end up in England. As in the story, Anna's father resembles Kerr's father: both were writers and had their books and literature burned by Nazis. The story gives readers a look at wartime from a child's perspective and of challenges faced when migrating to a new country. Anna and her brother Max experience racism as German-Jews and must learn to speak a new language. The title gets its name from Kerr's own thoughts about leaving behind a beloved childhood toy, as her family makes their escape. Since they had to move fast and travel light, she was only allowed to take one toy with her. Choosing what to take was a difficult decision.

From an interview in UK's Mirror magazine Kerr shares the title's backstory: As they fled Judith left behind her favorite toy, a battered pink bunny...

“I loved Pink Rabbit. She got quite worn and my brother played football with her! Her eyes fell off so Heimpi, who looked after us, embroidered new eyes. When we left I was allowed to take one toy but I took a stupid little dog instead because it was new. I always blamed myself for leaving her behind. Oh, I did miss her. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for my parents. They hoped they would be able to return or send for things. But it was all taken by the Nazis.” 

This reminds me of my 34-year-old son's favorite stuffed bunny, black and white Bo Ratty. Bo Ratty was given to him by his grandmother one Easter when he was a toddler, earning its name because bunny rabbit was too hard for him to then pronounce. The name actually fits now, since his childhood toy has become somewhat “ratty” over the years. Our family went through many moves with children, in search of affordable housing and job opportunities. Somehow Bo Ratty is still with my son today. It made sentimental feelings for Pink Rabbit more vivid, as I read about how Anna imagined Hitler playing with her beloved toy, and later found out how much that childhood toy meant to the author.

I loved the story of this family's adventures. Through hard times they remained brave and their strong love kept them together. I think this is a hopeful story that children and families starting a new life in a new country can relate too. It also made me aware of the many struggles our own country's immigrants face. Recommended for ages 8+ 

Wolfgang Koeppen (June 23, 1906 – March 15, 1996), was a German novelist best known for his postwar period series, Trilogy of Failure.  In 1962, Koeppen won the Buchner Prize, Germany’s most prestigious award. The second book in this series, Das Treibhaus, was published in 1953, but gained national recognition in 2001 when translated to English as The Hothouse by Michael Hofmann in 2001.  The translated edition was named a Notable Book by the New York Times and one of the Best Books of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.

When reading the book's introduction, I fell in love with this writer before even starting a word of the story to follow. It was his responses to several interview questions that had me. When asked what the crucial event of his life was, his reply was “learning to read.” Another time he was asked how he'd like to die ... a morbid question I thought. Yet when reading his answer was “in bed with a book,” I thought exactly! Koeppen also was noted as saying “It is perhaps my only boast, not to have served in Hitler's armies for a single hour.” 

The Hothouse is set in the capital of postwar Germany, the city of Bonn and takes place over a period of two days. Readers will follow thoughts and actions of Keentenheuve, a member of parliament. He has recently returned to his homeland, having been away in England for several years to avoid Nazism. Keentenheuve is a brooding character and wants to work at restoring his beloved county, but isn't sure he can trust his colleagues who each represent different factions. Haunted by their country's involvement in WWII, and the atrocities served by German government, everyone seems to have mistrust, guilt, and a jaded sense of reality.

In the book’s opening chapter Keentenheuve is introduced as a grieving widower. His much younger wife, Elke, has tragically succumbed to an alcohol / drug overdose. This sets a sad tone that stays with the story, as emotions can't improve greatly in just two days. Keentenheuve feels responsible; for neglecting his wife. He has spent too many nights at his government apartment, leaving Elke alone to find company with the wrong crowd.

The writing style of Koeppen is very descriptive, lyrical, and somewhat complex, with sometimes paragraph-long sentences. I also discovered new (sometimes forgotten) words that increased my range of vocabulary. For instance, another way of saying something is odd … can be referred to as something “droll.” Lexicons would love this book, and because of its poetic style, it is very beautiful when read aloud.

Here’s an example of Koeppen’s style and also marks his character's feeling of despair quite well … “He had attended committee meetings, he had spoken in parliament, he had revised legislation, he didn’t understand it, he could have stayed at Elke’s side, stayed on the side of youth, and perhaps, if he hadn’t done everything wrong, it might have been on the side of life as well. One human being was enough to give meaning to life. Work wasn’t enough. Politics weren’t enough. Those things didn’t protect him from the colossal futility of existence. It was a mild futility. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t stretch out long ghost arms to catch at the MP. It didn’t throttle him. It was just there. And it remained. Futility had shown itself to him, it had introduced itself to him, and now his eyes were open, now he could see it everywhere, and it would never disappear, it would never become invisible to him.”

I shared this book with Gerhardt and Johanna from Ashe County’s German Club to get their take on the story. They both agreed that the rambling, and yes sometimes repetetive wording, can be a bit much at times. Maybe something was lost in translation and reading it in its original language would have been more enjoyable for them. Although, others in our book group savored the lyrical phrasing, which often took on stream of consciousness, roll-and-flow-like thoughts. Koeppen lets readers ‘become’ his character with this technique. As always book club fare highlights food mentioned in the story. With this book there were sugared almonds, potato cakes, fizzy lemonade, and Cheryl's delicious version of Beef Steak Esterhazy. I discovered when researching the name Esterhazy, (belonging to a German political family), that it is often descriptive of foods including scorched onions. Karin, another member of the German club, introduced us to stollen, a German fruit bread often served at Christmas … perfect since this story takes place during the holiday season! Reading this book was a cultural experience for me that increased my knowledge in so many areas. If you decide to read this book I recommend digesting it slowly so as not to “choke” on unfamiliar words or miss out on Koeppen's descriptive detail.

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