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Category Archive for 'G – H'

Like The Diary of Anne Frank, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is also written by someone who began to write about the horrors of the Holocaust while they were actually happening, and while the author was living through their personal tragedies. Boschwitz’s novel, however, offers a significantly different focus, however, providing additional dimensions of reality while sacrificing some of the intimacy. Boschwitz, author of The Passenger, was twenty-threee and a recent college graduate when he wrote this book over the course of one frantic month in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht. Creating the fictional story of Otto Silbermann, a married businessman/owner of a successful salvage company in Berlin, Boschwitz gives realistic details about life in the city, describing a man who has always been dedicated to his business and fair to his employees, who loves his family, and who has a long history of hard work, even serving in the German military during World War I. After Kristallnacht, however, as life for Jews throughout Germany becomes ever more difficult, Silbermann finds all escapes from Nazi control closed, and takes what he regards as the only way out. He becomes a “passenger,” a man who travels from city to city by train almost non-stop, sometimes not getting out when he arrives at his “destination” in order to avoid being being identified and possibly arrested for being a Jew. It is a hopeless existence, and his thoughts and actions as he travels ring true.

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When a young man known as “Buddha,” who has been living in Bangkok, is sent back to Hong Kong to continue his recovery from drug abuse in the late 1980s, he finds many changes underway. Once “the Hollywood of the Orient,” the familiar Diamond Hill area of Hong Kong looks vastly different now in the lead up to the British turnover of Hong Kong to China, less than ten years away. Poet and novelist Kit Fan, who was born and educated in Hong Kong until he was twenty-one, tells Buddha’s story with the kind of sensitivity which comes from knowing his setting well, its people, and its problems – and caring about all of them Focusing on the people whom Buddha comes to know on Diamond Hill after he returns there from Bangkok, he writes an intimate story involving four major characters: “Buddha” himself. a recovering heroin addict; a young woman named Boss, who runs the heroin business for Diamond Hill; “Audrey Hepburn,” who once acted in a film with Bruce Lee; and Quartz, a complex and disturbed woman who is in charge of the chickens at the nunnery where Buddha lives. As each character becomes more connected with Buddha, he must evaluate himself and his relationships. One of the best debut novels I have read in a long time, I look forward to Kit Fan’s next novel for its insights, its precise descriptions, and its unusual characters.

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Few authors convey the inner thoughts of characters with the insight and sensitivity of Hungarian author Magda Szabo, and this novel may be one of her most insightful. Setting the novel in Hungary in the 1960s, the novel is surprisingly non-political, though the failed revolution of 1956 against their Soviet occupiers is a recent memory for her characters. The novel, dealing with the subject of love and how one expresses it, focuses not on one main character, but on four main characters, two men and two women of different generations and commitments. Creating a novel which is almost totally character-based, Szabo uses the plot primarily to provide incidents which reveal character. When Vince, husband of elderly Ettie, dies in a hospital, Ettie might have come into her own as a personality, but daughter Iza soon decides to become heavily involved in “helping” her mother in her day-to-day life. Each tries to do what is “right,” but so many gaps exists in their understanding of each other, based, in large part on their very real differences in background, history, personality, and generation, that their connection becomes frayed. Other connections involving other characters face additional problems. Presented honestly and personally, author Magda Szabo creates her characters and their stories, giving them additional depth and universality by organizing them into four parts – Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, as she tells their stories of elemental love.

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Author Irmgard Keun firmly established her reputation in Germany in 1932, with the publication of the hugely popular pre-Nazi era novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a celebration of youth and the fast life lived to its fullest. Almost a generation and a world war later, Keun published Ferdinand, The Man with the Kind Heart depicting the aftermath of the war and the separation of Germany into two nations, East and West. “Ordinary” citizens of this time and place do not know what to expect in the future, what goals make sense in this destroyed society, and how to live a real life. These are some of the very real goals of main character Ferdinand Timpe. A former POW and fiancé of a girl who is almost a stranger to him, Ferdinand himself is not intrinsically very interesting, but author Irmgard Keun is such a high-powered, energetic writer, so wild in creating scenarios filled with irony, humor, and constant surprises, that once a reader starts exploring her novel, it becomes all-encompassing. Her tornado of images and actions never lets up, bringing even Ferdinand to reluctant life.

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Set during the last summer of World War II in Europe, The Turncoat, Siegfried Lenz’s second novel, humanizes war and its soldiers in new ways. Concentrating on a group of young German soldiers who obey orders, even at the cost of their own lives and sanity, Lenz shows their vulnerability as they begin to reject the myths and propaganda they have been fed and do the best they can simply to survive. Focusing primarily on Walter Proska, a young man in his late twenties who has been at the front for three years, the author allows the reader to know him and his fellow soldiers as people, young men who once had dreams and who now have mostly memories – many of them horrific. They go where they are marched or transported, and do what they are told to do, often with a secret eye to escape. Lenz shows these soldiers as they really are, without demeaning them, sentimentalizing their emotional conflicts, or excusing their crimes. He makes no judgments, depicting the war as it was for this group of young German soldiers and illustrating a point of view very different from what Americans may expect. Written in 1951 but never published, it was rediscovered after Lenz’s death in 2014, and published in Europe and now the US. A masterpiece!

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