The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Book

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a study of a family, an American family. It is a story told by the second child, a boy named Danny. It’s a story about a clueless father and husband who buys his wife a house, a famous house, built with much attention to detail by a wealthy family, the VanHoebeeks,. The ceiling in the dining room is a work of art, literally. The house has a ballroom and a conservatory. Since the sale was an estate sale, all the VanHoebeek’s belongings are still in the house, including portraits of husband and wife over the mantle in the drawing room. Despite all the architectural glories the house has a very small kitchen because the staff would use it, not the family. There is also a pool.

Into this ritzy house Cyril Conroy brings his wife. He bought the house for her as a surprise. At the time they had one child, their daughter Maeve. The house was a source of pride for the husband who was a real estate investor and property manager. But his wife, was appalled by the expensive details. She yearned to dedicate her life to helping the poor. Clive found Elna just as she was preparing to enter a convent, not yet a nun. He whisked her away and married her. We often see our partners in life through cloudy mirrors. We make assumptions that if they love us they must be like us. The Dutch House is a story about misplaced love and misunderstood love. Maeve shoulders all the responsibilities of these selfish parents when the family falls apart. Some people should never have children. She yearns for what they lost, the family and the house and the hired women who took care of them, Fluffy, Sandy, and Jocelyn. Maeve is obsessed and cannot move on with her own life.

Although this is a story of a family, and of loss and reunion, even more it is a story of a house. If you have ever given a home and your heart to cats you know that some cats fall in love with people, but some cats fall in love with houses. How do Maeve and her brother lose The Dutch House and then get it back? Although nothing earthshaking happens, there are plenty of repercussions. What stories are more interesting than stories about families? Take your pick, but I will usually enjoy a good family saga by any writer as skilled as Ann Patchett. This book will probably be made into a movie, but doesn’t even have to be made into a movie because it already creates one in your mind.

Photo Credit: Goodreads.com

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

For me, it’s official, Mr. Coates can write. In The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates proves he can write fiction that is just as deep and accessible as his nonfiction. In The Water Dancer he writes about slavery (which he calls the Task) and abolitionists and the Underground, a subject that has had some good authorial attention in recent years. But, although the movement is present in the story, for Coates it is the people affected by slavery, the families torn apart, the histories lost, that matter. It is the inspirational struggles to create new family ties and to hold on to traditions, even if they had to be formed anew in a strange and terrible land.

Virginia is the state where the Lockless plantation tries to maintain an idle lifestyle, maintain a genteel veneer which rests on the shoulders of those who are tasked to do anything that might even vaguely be considered work. Every white person even has a personal maid or valet, a slave, who bathes them, grooms them, and dresses them.

These white plantation owners were supposed to be farmers but they were so greedy and so tied to the payouts from their tobacco crops that they refused to believe that the crops they depended on were depleting the land they were planted in. Some of those who “tasked” on the land understood what was happening but either no one listened or, as the land produced less income, those who understood the land and the crops were sold away south and west – to Natchez and beyond. Slaves really were sold away to Natchez but Coates also uses Natchez as a symbol for family separation, for sorrow, for harsher conditions, for loss.

Plantation owners, slave owners, sold off the most valuable “taskers” first so the family members who remained were left without the strongest among them, perhaps the most characterful, and the older slaves who kept the stories of celebrations and family ties alive. Sorrow that is never given time to abate collects and turns “the task” into a sadder, even more burdensome duty to preserve a failing white lifestyle even as the “taskers” see the community of their own, that they have been able to create in their captivity, disintegrate daily into grief and tearful good-byes.

Hiram Walker is a mixed-race son of Howell Walker, who also has a son by his white wife. Hiram who finds a home on the Street where the “tasked” live, a home with Thena, a women he is not related to, is a child with an excellent memory. He remembers every detail of what he sees and hears. But he cannot remember his mama. He knows her name is Rose. He knows she was a water dancer. He has seen her dancing in a vision on a bridge. A water dancer can dance joyfully and gracefully with an earthenware jar full of water on her head and not spill a drop. He knows his mother was a beauty, and he knows she had a sister, Emma – also a water dancer – because his “adopted” people have told him so. But where his own memories of his mother should be there is a hole.

Hiram also has a special talent. He can conduct himself across distances without being seen. In a land where no slave can walk off the land of his/her “master” without a pass, and where running away can be punished by near death (slaves are valuable property and so are rarely killed outright), someone who can “conduct” himself unseen has a very great gift indeed. But Hiram cannot control his talent and this is somehow related to what he does not remember about his mother. His love for another Lockless slave, Sophia, has grown over the years and it allows him to also accept and love her mixed-race child. Hiram needs to learn how to control his talent so that he can take the two women he loves and the child to freedom in the North.

Whether or not Hiram learns to control “conduction” and how he uses it is at the heart of this story but for me toil and survival, family and heritage; anger and sorrow and the mistaken idea that one person can “own” another – these things are the true heart and soul of this story. Conduction is part of an almost-lost origin story which never died even though the people the story belonged to were kidnapped, abused and held without freedom (in a land that supposedly treasured freedom).

I happen to be reading the Frederick Douglass biography by David Blight at the same time as I am reading Coates’ novel. These two book pair very well and one book seems to riff on the other. If white folks ever hope to understand not just why slavery was wrong but how the repercussions of this aberrant human behavior will echo forever in the souls and families of our fellow Americans of African Descent then The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates should add depth to your quest for understanding. I cannot speak to how black and brown people experience Coates’ novel but I hope to get exposure to some of their reactions.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie – Book

Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s most recent book is chock full of India-Indian Americans who seem as at home and doomed, with lives as empty as any American whose family has lived here for decades, or even centuries. Why are we here, not in America, but on this planet? Why are we intent on destroying the planet that is our home? What do we want? What does it all mean? We seem, in Rushdie’s tale as aimless as five dice in a Yahtzee cup.

Thematically Rushdie covers a lot of territory. Immigration or at least transplantation is in there, as are journeys, tilting at windmills, nostalgia, despair, guilt, hate, love, forgiveness, human failings, cultural failings, Planet B, apocalypse, dystopia and more, sort of an I Ching of modern pathologies.

This is a story loosely based on the Don Quixote story and Quichotte (Key-shot) is on a journey from Motel 6’s to Red Roof Inns across America peddling meds for his distant relation, Dr. Smile. Our Quichotte is a man with a big hole in his memory, a retrieval problem. He follows meteor showers from one magical western rock formation to another as he distributes his samples. Dr. Smile and his wife Happy Smile don’t think of themselves as drug dealers, but they are – so is Quichotte although he can barely be considered as capable of peddling anything.

Dr. Smile has created a new form of fentanyl to help cancer patients with breakthrough pain. It is sprayed under the tongue killing pain instantly. But it is very seductive and dangerous, the perfect pairing to make it beloved by those who abuse drugs. It is opioids on mega-steroids. Of course the drug escapes the medical boundaries of its designers and gets prescribed to just about anyone who wants it.

Quichotte does not know he is a drug dealer. He is just working for his relative and fortunately he gets fired before his job becomes an issue, fortunate because he has many other issues, one of them being that he is in love. Dr. Smile and Quichotte cross paths again though.

If you have seen a mirror that reflects the same scene back to a vanishing point, mirror after mirror, then you have some idea of Rushdie’s story structure. Or perhaps it’s like a set on nesting dolls. We have brothers, sons, fathers, sisters, all over the place, all estranged, all seeking to reconcile. Everyone is questing to bind wounds from the past. Everyone is looking for love, mostly of the sibling variety, except for Quichotte who has fallen in love inappropriately with a young TV star, and has created a son (Sancho) from a fervent wish on a meteor shower. Also, the world is starting to flicker around the edges like an old film that is fading in spots or dying from overexposure to light or heat in others.

I always say that India and America are soul mates but it is perhaps more likely that the people of our two nations are the actual soul mates. Thanks for the trip Salman Rushdie. I hope this story, Quichotte, which seemed to say farewell, will be followed by more Salman Rushdie productions in the future. Maybe despair is our present and our future, but maybe not. Perhaps we can turn our own planet into Planet B and soon, before we destroy each other along with the planet.

Fall by Neal Stephenson – Book

When Neal Stephenson takes on a subject he does not fool around, or he does but with purpose. In Fall, Neal Stephenson takes on the small topics of our times like how to fix the internet, immortality, artificial intelligence, and the Singularity. He even gets in a prolonged jab at modern American culture when he takes us with Sophia to Ameristan for a quick and terrifying visit (hint: the border is made up of WalMarts).

Who is Sophia? She’s Dodge’s great niece. Dodge, also known as Richard Forthrast, is the key character in this sprawling novel. One of Dodge’s last acts before entering a clinic for a simple procedure (which proves fatal) is to be distracted by a red leaf that he catches on the palm of his hand before it hits the pavement (Fall). He asks “if we lived on as spirits or were reconstituted as digital simulations” would things still have “quale” (for example) the subjective experience of redness.

Dodge, although his demise is premature, has made legal arrangements to have his brain frozen (a legal dilemma since the cryonics company has folded, but also not a dilemma because Forthrast is a very wealthy man with relatives who love him). So his brain is separated from his body until those at the forefront of using computers to scan brains and preserve them in digital form can progress. Once this is accomplished Dodge awakens in an empty digital simulation, a digital afterlife. But Dodge earned his fortune as the inventor of a popular world-building game called T’Rain. He begins to build a world to give the afterlife form. Back on earth living people can watch Dodge’s simulation unfold (he remembers his name as Egdod)

Dodge’s cohorts and rivals are Corvallis Kawasaki (cohort) and Elmo Shepherd (rival) and, of course his niece Zula, mother of Sophia (loyal family). A fake nuclear incident which leaves many people believing that the town of Moab, Utah was attacked points out some of shortcomings of the internet. “The Internet – what Dodge used to call the Miasma – had just gone completely wrong. Down to the molecular level it was still a hippie grad school project. Like a geodesic dome that a bunch of flower children had assembled from scrap lumber on ground infested with termites and carpenter ants. So rotten that rot was the only thing that was holding it together.”

Our intrepid computer wizards and coders invent a new way to protect an individual’s identity by using their actual “lifeprint”, called a PURDAH (Personal Unseverable Designation for Anonymous Holography). The internet needs to keep expanding to keep Dodge and all the new souls being scanned into the afterlife alive. Then Dodge, creator of the land mass of the afterlife from his Palace to the Knot, decides to see if he can bring forth new souls in the Landform Visualization Utility (LVU). When he is ultimately successful his old rival El (Elmo) Shepherd feels the entire design has been taken in the wrong direction. He decides to end his own life (he has a fatal disease anyway) and get scanned into Dodge’s creation. He ousts Dodge and takes over.

Eventually, of course, all the friends and enemies of Dodge die (or are murdered) (bots are no better than their owners). The population of Earth is declining. Who will be left to make sure the afterlife is supplied with enough energy to continue to exist? How do we get to the Singularity?

It’s a long strange trip (from the Grateful Dead song ‘Truckin’). Neal Stephenson is always amazing and Fall might just be the quintessential gamer fantasy novel/or you might think it is just past weird. As for me, although it lagged in a few parts, it worked. That does seem like one way we could get to the Singularity and leave the Earth to its own devices to recover from humans. On the other hand, I have not signed up for any tech leading to a digital afterlife, and as far as I know, no such tech exists. I don’t think the afterlife looked all that appealing unless you were a member of the ‘Pantheon’. We may find out if books copy life, or if life copies books. Keep your ears open.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – The Verge

The New Girl by Daniel Silva – Book

Having read all of Daniel Silva’s spy novels that feature Gabriel Allon and his team of talented Israeli intelligence specialized spies, I could not resist getting to The New Girl as soon as possible. None of the other books (there are 18 of them) deals with a global situation that is quite as recent as the one we find here. Silva always uses his spy Allon, now the head of the Israeli Intelligence Service to make sure that bad actors pay for the mayhem they cause and that the activities of the bad actors cease and desist. Often evil doers must die to insure that they will not eventually practice their crimes and terrors at some other point in the future.

This time Daniel Silva wants to remind us of how important journalists and journalism are to maintaining the freedoms that people treasure. We are reminded that one of the first things dictators often do is shut down the free press and support a press that is merely a mouthpiece for the leader. The most shocking recent example involved the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi assassination team sent into a Turkish embassy, perhaps by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) the heir to the throne in Saudi Arabia, although he denies it. In a way this novel attempts to do the same thing that Quentin Tarantino did in his most recent movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywoodby righting a wrong, although in both cases we know that a fictional revision of history cannot really right a past wrong. However revenge fiction can offer some personal satisfaction.

The names have been changed of course, MBS becomes Khalid bin Mohammed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. who is buying a painting in NYC from our old friend Sarah Bancroft, occasionally part of Gabriel’s team, when his daughter  at a exclusive private school in kidnapped. She is only twelve. Who would know where she was? Who would abduct her? The reasons are not as mysterious. There could be many reasons why Khalid might attract violence. Stealing a child is a low-life way to get the attention of someone this powerful and it is probable that it involves a hope to get Khalid out in the open in order to kill him.

Omar Nawwaf is the name of the fictional character who faces the same fate as Khashoggi and whose murder disgusts people around the world and causes us to stop noticing that MBS is handsome and to just remember that he is ruthless. The world reacts similarly to the killing of Omar Nawwaf in Silva’s book but people who know about the kidnapping of his daughter (very few people) do not believe in punishing the child for the sins of the father. Omar was trying to give Kahlid information about a plot against him by his uncle when he was assassinated. Omar’s wife, Hanifa Khoury, eventually shares what Omar learned with Gabriel, but only to help save the child.

How does it all end? Well, as usual, bummer, I can’t tell you. All the other Gabriel Allon books deal with history that is further in the past. You may feel that this particular piece of global terror is too fresh to qualify for Silva’s fictional treatment of it. People’s reactions will probably be personal and varied. Although many of my favorite characters appear and there is the beginning of a romance that readers should like (but Gabriel does not think will work), I can’t help but feel that it may have been too soon to approach this subject.

Photo Credit: from a Google Image Search – Houstonia

Find me also at Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

https://nbrissionbookblog.com/

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

A space opera of world building, world destroying, planet eaters, strange goddesses who stride across space, like the Suicide Sisters, and a “ragtag” group, united by a mission – Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone is a mashup of Star Wars and a complex video game, all brought to life with words rather than actual graphics.

Viv knows only Earth. She is a businesswoman. She has not been truly ruthless, but she has been heedless of other’s feelings as she climbed her way to the top of the business world. Just as she is in an enormous server room about to finish uploading a program which could give her dominion over her world, the Empress of Forever, very green and powerful in ways Viv has never even imagined reaches in and grabs ahold of Viv’s heart and zaps her into a place in space called High Cacereal. How is Viv still alive? How will Viv get home? How will she get back to Magda to make sure she is safe? How will she find out what happened when she sent out her virus before it was completely loaded?

Well the answers to those questions will not be quick in coming. Viv first saves the Empress’s enemy Zanj, a feisty space pirate who has been imprisoned for 3,000 years, one of the once-famous Suicide Sisters. Zanj, never one to sit still can use the Cloud to travel through space. The first of the group hunting the Empress that Zanj and Viv meet is the loveable Hong, a monk with lots of courage and common sense. Then Xiara of the piloting Ornclan is added, and Gray of the Grayframes. Of course our band of Empress-haters must travel to every corner of Max Gladstone’s  and Zanj’s world to see the damage the Empress has wrought.

Since Viv arrives in this world from the world of business she brings with her the wisdom success in business has taught her. This blend of How-to-Succeed-in-Business book lore, self-help psychological teachings, warcraft, and science fiction is kind of dazzling. How do people think up this stuff? It’s Linked in, Instagram, and World of Warcraft all rolled into one.

Despite this odd marriage of disciplines, Max brings his fantasy-built world richly alive for us. The novel is fun to read and as Viv learns the lesson that would have sealed her success as a businesswoman or made winning irrelevant, so do we. There is no I in team, but having the support of a truly connected team allows you to realize the very best version of yourself. Empress of Forever introduced me to a whole other kind of fantasy/science fiction novel for the computer age, perhaps intended for younger readers. Still, I found it fascinating to see how the genre is being transformed, and I made some new fictional friends.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner – Book

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is a sort of a “cover” of the classic book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This time there are only two girls in the Kaufman family who live in a little “Dick and Jane” house on Alhambra Street. They are named Jo (Josette) and Beth (Bethie) – the mom is Sarah and the dad is Ken.

My initial negative reactions to Mrs. Everything were decidedly generational. In Alcott’s book Jo and Beth didn’t have sex. Jo had ambitions that were not considered feminine, and she was aware that she would find it difficult to fulfill those ambitions, but she did not seem to struggle with her sexual identity, hardly an acceptable topic when Alcott wrote her novel.

However I got over myself. After all I am a child of the sixties. I did not find Bethie’s “rebirth” odd. I heard more than a few primal screams in my time. What bothered me more was the stereotypical presentation of the two sisters differing prepubescent personalities. Not every girl who likes sports and doesn’t care to play with dolls or wear dresses is a lesbian or has a sexual identity anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. The only saving grace for the lack of research into the subject can be found in the fact that the characters were intended to parallel the character differences between Alcott’s Jo and Beth.

Modern Jo knew that she was attracted to girls when she was in high school and she had quite a long relationship with her best friend. Her heart was broken for the first time when her first love got married to her high school sweetheart, a boy. Jo could never have pleased her mother by being as feminine as her mother wished her to be, and once her mother learned of Jo’s true sexual orientation, Sarah’s constant disapproval insured that Jo would be happy to leave for college.

Bethie (Beth) was every bit as feminine as her mother would wish her to be. She got lots of positive reinforcement. However, the lives these sisters actually lived most likely will not match the trajectory you think they are on.  They were born in a decade of change. Trite but true, life happens.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is about identity and reality, bravery and duty, social pressure, love, and broken hearts. It did not push the button in me that said “eureka, this is a great book”, but perhaps the way readers experience the quality of this book will turn out to be generational.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Chicago Tribune

Look for me on nbrissonbookblog.com and Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Normal People by Sally Rooney – Book

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Two people, two Irish people, one male, one female, one from a wealthy family, one from a working class family, child of an unmarried mom are the focus of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. Marianne’s and Connell’s worlds would not naturally connect, but in this case Connell’s mom cleans the house that Marianne’s family lives in. Connell’s mother is supportive and loving, doing all she can to provide for her son and to let him feel that he can talk to her and rely on her. Marianne’s father was abusive towards his daughter and his wife. Even with her father gone, Marianne’s family provides no haven of security. Her brother continues the abusive pattern of the father through a campaign of constant criticism and actual bullying which the mother refuses to intervene in. The absence of loving parents leaves Marianne alone to contend with her brother, although it is obvious she has no strategies to help her succeed against him.

Connell is a success in high school, despite his absent father. He is a football player and he’s an excellent student. Marianne uses awkwardness to keep everyone at bay in high school because she has no faith in her appearance or in her social skills. She does not try to look attractive or to make friends, but her isolation adds to her lack of self-esteem. She and Connell begin a secret and, at first, sexual relationship, but as they also talk to and confide in each other the relationship deepens and they begin to become more than friends but not an actual couple.

Connell’s academic skills and his relationship with Marianne give him the confidence to imagine escaping his working class roots and he goes off to the same upper class Trinity University that Marianne will attend, instead of going to Galway where his accent would not set him apart, instantly telling his schoolmates his background. He is a sort of fish out of water at Trinity, however.

Marianne is in her element at Trinity and she begins to fit in. The abuse she was subjected to in her family still has her choosing partnerships where she submits to cruel men. In fact as Marianne seeks out men who will treat her badly, she physically becomes thinner and thinner, frailer and frailer. (I did not like the idea that as she became more invisible, almost disappearing, she also, according to the author, became more and more beautiful. This equation which says the thinner you get the more beautiful you become is not necessarily either true or healthy.)

Connell and Marianne come together and part. They try to have relationships with other people but their unfinished business with each other keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbit, while their personality challenges keep driving them apart. It is a dance that is less about love and more about therapy. Can people repair childhood damages in each other? Can they do this without forming a lifelong commitment to each other? Maybe. Is this a bit frustrating to a reader who always wants characters this addicted to each other to find a happy ending? Of course.

Since this is a character-driven novel, do the characters ring true? Almost. They are just a bit too two dimensional for us to really care about them. This is not Anna Karenina. But of course modern Ireland, once quite as tragic as a Russia in transition, now has problems similar to those of any modern nation. These characters could come alive in a movie, but they are not quite that absorbing in Rooney’s book, Normal People. I did enjoy the rare occasions when Connell’s “Sligo” dialect was reflected in the text and I wished that we heard it more often. It is probably impossible to write a perfect book and although some authors come close it is always possible to find flaws, so despite my complaints this was still a novel that I enjoyed reading from cover to cover.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone – Book

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone – Book

The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone follows Kate Moore and her husband Dexter from a stay in Luxembourg in his first novel The Expats, where things started out calmly and went pretty badly off the rails. Kate works for the US government in intelligence but, of course, it’s a secret. Dexter got lured into a scheme to hack a fortune in dirty money and his law-abiding wife finds out. She finds a way to keep Dexter out of prison but at the end of Chris Pavone’s first book, The Expats, the Moore’s marriage is a bit stormy – a very quiet storm because they are barely speaking.

After Luxembourg they travel around Europe for a while with their two children and then they settle in Paris minus the other expat couple they befriended in Luxembourg, a couple Kate hopes is out of their lives forever. Kate’s two children are now school age and she wishes she could enjoy being a full time mom, but life with the agency is just too exciting. What else would she do all day while her children are in school? And now she has been given her own little agency office to run in Paris.

Dexter works at home. He has decided to become a day trader. But it turns out that everyone, except Kate who is busy with her motherhood guilt, has revenge on their minds, and it all leads to one spectacularly messy day in Paris. If this day didn’t involve the deaths of two single fathers, a terrorist attack that immerses Paris in chaos, and threatens to nuke the Louvre it would most resemble one of those French hotel comedy/murder mysteries where everyone is sneaking in and out of everyone else’s room, sometimes with hanky-panky on their minds, and luggage is getting mixed up while people wander around in extravagant outfits and identities get confused. Perhaps to update the genre a bit this is a sort of thriller version of that Barbara Streisand movie “What’s Up Doc?”. Sadly the actual events in Paris seem a bit inappropriate to what is basically a romp, but such are the paradoxes here in the 21 st century and after all it is a thriller/romp.

The author’s chapters focus in turn on the characters, each telling his/her part of the story in small glimpses. You know that the facts will eventually give you the whole picture. You start to see or think you see through this plot – the author has left too many clues, the affair is too easy to unravel, but don’t become overconfident. There are plenty of surprises.

The Paris Diversion is not at all like a true thriller, but it is a true diversion that uses realities that have become far too normal to us. Throughout this whole crazy day the adults are having, the Moore children are safe in a good French school behind a high wall and at the end of the day will suspect nothing. How bad can things get in the space of someone’s slightly elongated school day? You won’t believe it.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search. – Parnassus Musing

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – Book

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Sometimes fiction based on a true story is a difficult beast for an author to tangle with. It can be a struggle to make the elements of fiction (plot, setting, characters) hold the spark that turns a story into literature. The Tattooist of Auschwitzbasically retells a true story told to the author Heather Morris by the man who we know as Lale Sokolov. The author, as a beginner tells the story well, but, for me the story lacks the depth and poignancy that might have come from the pen of someone more experienced in ways to use prose to embellish and flesh out the facts. However, perhaps the unadorned story is more useful for historical purposes.

This novel deals with the prisoners in the concentration camps who did jobs that put them in closer touch with German officers, tasks that carried perks like more food, better quarters, access to favors as long as the prisoner groveled properly when required. Although these prisoners often had no choice about taking on these “lighter” duties, they were seen by other prisoners as collaborators and their few rewards understandably were resented.

Lale, our tattooist was a young man on his way up. He worked in a department store until all the Jews were fired. He was and is a great admirer of women, although he doesn’t seem overbearing about it. He seems to possess some personal charm. When told to report to the train for transport he puts on a suit and tie. His mother makes him pack some books, which won’t matter because he will never see any of his personal items ever again. Not long after he arrives in the concentration camp he becomes assistant to the current tattooist and soon takes the lead tattooist’s place. In the camps people often just disappear, never for a good reason. Lale, as the tattooist, gets extra food and a room of his own. He does not have to labor with a shovel from sun up to sun down. He makes sure to pass some of his extra food along to his old bunkmates.

Once he sees Gita in the nearby women’s camp he falls in love and she returns his affection. Gita works in an office keeping records and lives in a barracks with girls who have named the building where they work Canada because that sounds like a safe place. They sort through and categorize the possessions the Germans take from prisoners. Lale eventually finds a way to take some of the jewelry slipped to him by Gita’s friends and exchange it for food, mainly sausages and chocolate, which he shares to supplement the starvation fare in the camp. The love that grows between Lale and Gita fuels their will to survive.

Every day he steadily tattooes numbers on the arms of more prisoners at Auschwitz and Birkenau, a flood of dispossessed people doomed by one man’s madness. Lale describes the building of the furnaces and the human ashes that drift down over all and have to be ignored for reasons of sanity and survival. But emotional content is missing and it just seems a bit superficial given the horrific circumstances and the daily dread – more news report than work of fiction. Maybe the way Lale survives is exactly is how some people survive by convincing themselves that they are able to use those who have imprisoned them. When so many were shot on the spot for the slightest infraction Lale’s good fortunes seem unlikely. The story could be true but it could be what one man told himself to get by.

The Tattoist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris does bring up the often examined issue of whether people like Lale were collaborators or just survivors. If it is true, this represents a rare alternative view inside the concentration camps. I don’t recall reading another book about collaborators within the camps, although there are many books about collaborators in occupied territories and much speculation about what makes someone a collaborator and even about degrees of collaboration. Although I am not enamored of the art of the book it raises interesting issues and takes us back to that question of what we would have been capable of in similar circumstances. So many brave survivors came out of the camps that I’m not sure Lale’s story seems similarly heroic, but perhaps it should.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – American Jewish University