Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Devouring Books: If This Is A Woman by Sarah Helm

When I think about things I've read about the Holocaust, I come up with Maus, The Diary of Anne Frank, and that's kind of it. I honestly couldn't tell you if I've been intentionally trying to shield myself from reading about horrible things, or if I've just been a lazy scholar in this area. I learnt about the Holocaust at Secondary School (but that's it) and I've also been to a Concentration Camp and even the place where the final solution (uck) was decided upon*, but I've still remained pretty ignorant about most of the horrifying things that happened in the camps during the war.

Fittingly, If This Is A Woman is a really comprehensive book about the activities of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, a camp that nobody ever really knows or talks about. I can't tell if this is because 1) it wasn't a death camp (as in it didn't have gas chambers until right at the end of the war, not that many many didn't die there because of the awful conditions) 2) it wasn't strictly a Jewish camp because the agenda for Jews was obviously death and so they didn't tend to stay at Ravensbruck long, or 3) because it was a camp, in fact the only camp, that was exclusively for women. I don't want to be cynical and say that because women are the only ones that suffered and died there it has been viewed as less important and not as worthy to discuss, but I guess I am saying that so please have some of my cynicism, it's free!

Ok, so. As I've already said, I have nothing really to compare this book to, but in my opinion, it was a really really good chronicles of the experiences of women in the camp. I can't say that I exactly enjoyed reading it because, come on, but there were times when I couldn't quite put it down just because I was filled with horror, and, quite frankly, I wanted to get to the end where, at least, some of the women would survive.** This book, however, is packed with information and research, and although there were points where I just wanted to not know anymore, I also felt like reading it was an important thing to do- not even for me, really, but for everyone to know how horrifying things were so that we don't let this shit happen again.

I think for me, the best thing about this book is that it's all about the women's stories. I think Helm interjects as the narrator only in the introduction and epilogue, and only to describe her feelings upon visiting the camp and also explaining how she tracked down some of the survivors. Other than that, it is only the women's voices we hear, describing the things they lived through and also describing the women they loved who didn't live through them. I still don't know if I've remained ignorant through choice or because, y'know, I've been reading other things, but I know for a fact that I've always tried to not hear about the medical experiments Nazis carried out on prisoners (if I go through my whole life not knowing what they were doing with twins, for example, I think I'll be good). This book, however, did not allow me to look away, and now I know about some horrifying experiments that I suspect don't even scratch the surface of the evil shit the Nazis were doing to people. It's not like I didn't know they were bad, but shit, dude. They were doubleplus bad, you know?

I think this review has mostly revealed my ignorance of the Holocaust before reading this book, but i guess that's ok. I read to entertain myself, mostly, but this was absolutely an instance of reading to educate myself. I feel as though it has opened a door to probably more Holocaust reading, but in a little while so that I have a chance to recover somewhat (I realise this makes me a total pansy compared to people who fought, hard, for their lives every single day, but hey, I gotta do self care). In my completely uninformed opinion, this is a really good example of a Holocaust chronicle, and if you want to look specifically at the women who suffered, then this is, I think, a really good place to start.




*It's this gorgeous house in the Berlin suburbs and it just does not deserve to be that beautiful. But it is. Sorry.
**Alas, the end is pretty grim- many women were killed in air raids just outside Ravensbruck after they'd been freed, and many many more were raped by soviet soldiers who were there to liberate them. Yay, men!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Devouring Stephen King: Doctor Sleep

Of all the King books that have been released after starting my long voyage, Doctor Sleep is the one I was most apprehensive about. The Shining is a pretty iconic book (don't talk to me about the movie, but the book, yes) and if there was something I didn't think I needed, it was a sequel to it. I'm not sure that this book exactly convinced me that I needed a sequel, but I still really enjoyed it all the same.

Let's see. This book starts by taking us to Danny about 3 years after the events in The Overlook, where he is being haunted again by some of the gross things he saw there. Dick Halloran tells him how to get rid of them, and we are then transported through time (that happens a lot in this book which is one of its strengths- we'll get onto that later) to see Danny- now Dan- as an adult alcoholic, drinking almost all the time to try and dull the memories and the shining- less intense as an adult than as a child, but still irreducibly there. We actually get to see him hit rock bottom, stealing from a woman who quite clearly has nothing, and leaving a child in a dangerous situation.

It was at this point that I was worried about this book. I didn't want to see the destruction of Danny from The Shining, and I didn't know enough about the book to be sure that he wasn't going to go down a Jack Torrence path of destruction rather than going to AA. Spoiler, but reassurance- he goes to AA rather than on a killing spree so you are totally going to be able to read this book, don't panic.

Danny (Dan) is not even really the main point of this book, however. This is his story, but it's also the story of a long-living group of almost vampires, who live not off blood but off of whatever is produced by children who shine. It's also also the story of Abra, a little girl who does shine, and who shines extremely bright. These three elements combine together over time gaps and physical distances to make a story that's really intriguing and exciting and oddly road trip-ish, but you know. In a bad way.

In a lot of ways, I think the best thing about this book is the time gaps. What it allows is for us to see large cross sections of Danny's life, from rock bottom, to finally finding help, to then being able to help others. As much as The Shining was incredibly insular and takes place over a few weeks/months, Doctor Sleep takes place over decades, making it much more roaming and a whole overview of a person's life, rather than giving us a small snapshot of what Dan's life is like afterwards. King pretty much says that he wrote this book cause people always asked him what happened to the kid from The Shining, and so he got to wondering that himself. Here he answers the question not with a single event but with many, and you know what? It ain't such a bad life at all.

And so. The completely unnecessary sequel turned out to be pretty great, and definitely worth your time and attention. I like and root for Dan as much as I liked and rooted for him as a child, and I'm really glad that this book didn't do anything bad to the legacy of The Shining, even though I feared it would. It's good book, people. Good book indeed.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Devouring Stephen King: Joyland

Joyland was, quite genuinely, a joy to read (groaaaaaan). It's another one of King's Hard Case Crime books (the last being The Colorado Kid) and it's just so great. Although, because it's King, there are a couple of supernatural elements to proceedings (a fortune teller! A psychic child! A ghost!) at it's core this is really just a good old fashioned whodunnit and, well, I can hardly resist one of those.

I'm finding it hard to think coherently about Joyland, because my brain just keeps going 'God, that book was GREAT!' and that's about all I can handle. So let's try and do some plot. Devin is a college student who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and has found a summer job at a carnival. Firstly, the carnival seems like an awesome place to work, and don't think for one second that I didn't want to run off and be a carny for most of this book because shit, those parts seemed like so much fun. This particular theme park, however, has a grisly past as a woman was murdered in (of course) the haunted house a number of years before, and it is solving this crime that is the basis of the book.

Except that, it also kind of isn't. I know I said this is a good old fashioned whodunnit, and certainly I got that rush of satisfaction when I found out who the killer was because, you know, it's very pleasing to have solved the mystery.* In many ways though, the mystery, just like the supernatural elements, are secondary to the main story, which is basically just the story of Devin himself. That's right, King has done it again, and made you believe you're reading a scary book, when actually you're really just reading a character piece. This book is all about getting over heartbreak, making grown up choices, and finding out who you are and who you want to be in life. All of these things are things I can get behind, and shit, I really loved this book.

Don't get me wrong though, it is still pretty scary. There were definite moments of peril where I couldn't quite breathe right, and I was also so engrossed by it that I made my boyfriend and I miss a train because shit, I just wanted to finish it, ok?! I gulped this book down in a couple of days, not only because it's short and I had some travelling time to read (both true) but also because, fuck, I really did  not want to put it down (see above re: missing train).

So to conclude. This book was aces and frankly I could read it again right now without any complaints. I don't even just recommend this book to you, I URGE you to read it, especially if you like crime fiction in any sense. I don't know what it is about these later King books, but to me it seems like he's gotten really really good over the last few I've read. All killer, no filler, all that kind of stuff. This makes me really excited for whatever comes next, and also slightly mournful that in just a few books, I'll have to wait for the next King book to be published like a total sucker. Alas, alas, woe is me etc. But also, not really cause I get to read more Stephen King!

*For the record, I did not solve the mystery, and definitely allowed myself to be led down the wrong path just as King intended. I like detective/crime stories, I would just be really bad if I lived in one.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Things I Read In May

May was a preeeetty good reading month, mainly because I had so many sick days off work for various reasons (5 in total, which feels so naughty to write down, but... sick is sick!) I finished 6 books, which actually I don't think is a giant amount, BUT a couple of them were giant and so, you know, I read a lot of book last month.

JUST LOOK!

Amazingly, I have reviewed most of these books already (coming soon!) so this monthly wrap up will be mercifully short for once, don't say I never do anything for you.

Joyland by Stephen King
I had so much pure, unadulterated fun reading this one. It's a crime King, which is always excellent, mainly because there's not just a crime to solve but also some supernatural elements thrown in and just a lot of good, clean fun. You'll like it, I swear.

If This Is A Woman by Sarah Helm
This book looks at Ravensbruck, the only Nazi Concentration Camp that was exclusively for women, and it was hard to read. Not hard because the writing was bad (it wasn't) but because the subject matter is especially difficult and it's hard to reconcile humans treating other humans in such a way. I have already written a review for this, but rest assured it is worth your time and (I think) a good place to start if you want to learn more about the Holocaust.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
It's the sequel I didn't think I needed, but it turned out that I liked it quite a lot. Doctor Sleep follows Danny from The Shining (premise of the book: whatever happened to the kid from The Shining?) through alcoholism but then glory and even though I was worried about the legacy of The Shining I really shouldn't have been cause this was great.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
I think what I'm about to say might shock you, but I wasn't over enamoured with this book. It's an early Murakami, so it seems to me that, although it still contains many of his usual hallmarks (ears, foods, REALLY WEIRD SHIT) he hadn't quite worked out how to fit them all together yet to make a cohesive story. If his stories can ever be cohesive, I suppose... Anyway, it wasn't terrible because Murakami, but still was not at all my favourite.

A Feast For Crows by George R R Martin 
It's Game of Thrones. You know what you're getting. For me the real excitement with this book came from trying to work out where things came in the tv show, and also trying to work out what had been substituted for what because there are some real differences that are starting to emerge (although many of the essential plot points remain the same). I did enjoy this book a lot and it helped me while I was recovering from a medical thing, but I STILL LIKE THE TV SHOW BETTER I AM SORRY.

 Dietland by Sarai Walker
I finished this book in basically a day, which should tell you both that it was super easy to read and also excellent. I have written a full review of this one too (I KNOW) so I shan't say too much, but let's just say that the fact that it is easy to read is deceptive because it is feeding you so many important things you need to know about the diet industry and accepting oneself and ugh it's just so great. I can't recommend it enough, really.

And that was May! It's only the second of June and I've already finished one book, so I'm super optimistic about this next month already, I have to say. How is your reading going for the year?