Saturday, December 27, 2014

Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

I had one of those trips to the library, where every book I touched I knew was a gem. Here is one glorious, rich, challenging find from that visit:

Gestapo. Holocaust. SS guards/soldiers/ commandant. Aushwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Hanna. Karl. Family. Black C sharp piano key. I so appreciate the current offerings from YA authors centering on the Holocaust, and here Zail offers us a whole new view, that of a commandant's son. Much like some of my other writing, occasionally these blog entries write themselves. Not this one. I feel vastly inadequate as I try to represent what the story is about and in turn, how it touches me. Inadequate indeed.

Like so many other Jews in Budapest, Hanna and her family are hatefully transported out of their lives (again!) and into Aushwitz-Birkenau on Polish lands. As soldiers separate the family, her father tells her to tell the world about all the autrocities they are experiencing and what is unfortunately to come. While the tragic story continues as soon, only Hanna and her sister remain together. Ironically Hanna becomes the piano player for the commandant of Aushwitz. She travels daily to his compound, playing when he commands and waiting patiently while he is not in the piano room. In time, she learns she can take small food scraps from the kitchen, benefitting both her, her sister, and their block leader. The ugliness of surviving in a concentration camp brutalizes most moments throughout the book, but the tender, subtle sliver of light comes from the commandant's son Karl. He calls Hanna by name not number, and in numerous stark moments at his father's house, he sees the prisoners as humans. A musician and singer in his own life, Karl moves to the music Hanna plays. Ironically this story has romance in it, a move that completely surprised me and alters the story in such twisty ways.

Zail writes Holocaust stories regularly, some of which connect to her father's experience as a survivor of that atrocity. More than worth exploring, Zail brings us a rich story in Playing for the Commandant. Explore it.

Post-script: Thank you to the two commenters who helped me realize a major error in my framing of this book. Aushwitz-Birkenau is not and never has been a Polish concentration camp/; it was established by the Germans on Polish soil and in no way was created by the Polish people/government in any way, shape, or form. I apologize for my misstatements, and/or misguiding words and I greatly appreciate the views from readers.

Thank you, readers, who continue to expand my knowledge.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is another of my fave authors. She wrote Hate List and Thousand Words, both reviewed on this blog. Torn Away is another winner from her. YA authors frequently surprise me with the subjects they write about, and Torn Away surprised me multiple times.

Her junior year is almost over when a massive and deadly tornado destroys much of what Jersey knows. Her sister and mother are killed, her stepfather goes missing, and as she waits under the pool table in the basement of her no-longer-standing house, she contemplates what in the world she will do to live again. Wickedly traumatized by surviving the brutal storm, she does what others around her are doing and begins her own searches. Days later (that actually seem like weeks through Brown's effective and "time-stopped" writing), her stepfather returns to the house; Jersey thinks she is somehow lucky he is alive until she realizes that he refuses to care for her, sending her to her long-disappeared and relentlessly-cruel father. Life seems unlivable; here again Brown brings a piercing clarity to her writing, to the storyline, and to a new-to-me world of the aftermath of tornados and living in Tornado Alley. As is usually the case with Brown's books, there is a glimmer of hope but it comes with great effort on several character's parts, accompanied by pain-filled costs. I had two questions inside when I reached the end of the story: When do we know what we have to let go of is worth letting go of? What do we need to have the strength to indeed let go?

This is a powerful tale to investigate. I would love to know how it reads for those who have survived such trial-filled experiences. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Paper Cowboy by Kristin Levine

Kristin Levine is definitely on my Top 100 Authors list, and as I read her new novel, I was reminded why. I read and reviewed The Lions of Little Rock earlier, a tale that rocked my world in several ways. Her audience here again is the young teenager, that serious and studying age when one gets a little quiet and asks seriously unique questions about the ways our world works. Levine knows her audience well, her writing reflects that knowledge like a still pond stutters rings when a rock is tossed in: slowly, consistently, and rarely ending.

The Paper Cowboy is the story of a young teen boy who would rather stir up trouble and bully folks than listen to the frequently resonating and difficult questions that pummel him inside. His bullying can be pointed to anyone, and in some ways, he is living out the ugliness his mom is throwing his way in her increasing emotional and physical beatings. His sister gets seriously burned in a fire and Tommy feels he is to blame for that, so he takes all the beatings his mother will lay out on him. He bullies school mates, one "Little Skinny" in particular. He escalates his nastiness to new heights when he places a communist newspaper in the stack of papers used to wrap purchased items at Little Skinny's fathers' store. Set in the 1950's US when McCarthy is out to accuse and prosecute any communist, real or imagined, the store's image never recovers the emotional and social beating Little Skinny's father takes because of that single page that wraps an item from the store. Tommy knows what he did was wrong so he searches for who the communist in his community really is while keeping his actions secret. Tommy is one bad dude, ugly in many ways, and as tensions grow for all of his mean actions, an equal and paradoxical questioning resonates inside of him. Kind adults and young people, forgiving and resilient, show up in interesting moments, offering Tommy new footing and ways of being.

Levine amazes me. Her book is 330+ pages long, an uncommon book length for this age group, but not a page is wasted. The storyline both deep and realistic, she aptly weaves her own memoir-like history into this tale. I love how she reveals her mission at the end of the text, offering information that both surprised and further engaged me. This is a difficult and beautiful read, worth engaging in during our winter season. A beautiful tale without question.