Book Reviews

I have been going through some heavy books lately. Well, two, but that seems like a lot, especially with pregnancy brain fogging up my ability to concentrate on anything. I had to take a break after these to jump into some lighter fare – well, my new indulgence I’ve taken up, British Vogue. I like that it’s just a little bit lighter than it’s American counterpoint, which I think takes itself too seriously. So in between the deep thoughts I’m having about the book I just read, I’m indulging in a little frivolity, which is just fine by me.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

Book description: Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.

Reading Challenge category: Book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit

My review: Okay, it’s not exactly high high literature, but it is a long book that calls for a great deal of focus and attention on the part of the reader. It is a monster story, told from the perspective of a historian. Several generations of historians and librarians chase down the spectre of Dracula through academic documents and half-remembered folk tales, only to find the undead prince himself. It’s actually pretty cool how the whole thing is set up – it’s the little hints and clues in documents that cause our monster hunters to forge off into far-off places, trying to find his tomb. Most of the book is told through letters and memoirs, and the connections through the generations are slowly gathered and built this way too.

You know who would love this book? Any historian or librarian. I’m thinking especially of my sister, master librarian AND historian herself, would just love it. The one downfall is that this book does tend to drag a little bit. There were a few rather dry articles put in there that I struggled to get through … it probably could have been tidied up a little bit. But that’s a minor complaint – for the most part I really enjoyed how this story revealed itself.

I chose this as my reading challenge “book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit” because it covers several places on my world checklist – well, Eastern Europe, particularly Romania but also Budapest, as well as Turkey. Sigh. I can’t wait to explore that part of the world. I definitely feel lucky that nowadays we don’t have to worry about the Soviet Bloc making it extremely difficult to visit these places, as occurred in the book.

Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron

Book description: Three stories are told: a young Southerner wants to become a writer; a turbulent love-hate affair between a brilliant Jew and a beautiful Polish woman; and of an awful wound in that woman’s past–one that impels both Sophie and Nathan toward destruction.

Reading Challenge category: Banned book

My review: Don’t ask me why I decide to take on books like this, especially while pregnant. It seems almost masochistic, and yet here I am, writing about this heart-rending tale.

There were so many themes that came up in this book, but for me, Sophie’s Choice is about guilt – both personal guilt that we feel for our choices we’ve made, as well as societal or cultural guilt about our complicity in atrocities committed by earlier generations. The book discusses both the atrocities of the Holocaust in Europe, as well as the culture of slavery in America’s South. Both the narrator, Stingo, from a white land-owning family in Virginia, and Sophie herself, a non-Jewish Pole, struggled with their feelings about being on the “wrong” side of history – on the side of the people who did do terrible things. Even though Stingo didn’t own slaves, he actually was being kept financially afloat by the proceeds of the sale of a young man an ancestor of his did own. Sophie’s father was a rabid anti-Semite in the years before the war and had published material about the “final solution” (ironically, he was one of the first people killed in Poland by the Nazis). There was actually some backlash against the fact that Sophie, as the heroine in a concentration camp, was not Jewish, but I think that her father’s complicity in the extermination camps adds a more complex layer to the guilt that she suffers with and eventually consumes her.

Some ways this guilt was showcased was shown when Stingo remembered whatever silly thing he was doing the very same day that Sophie was admitted to Auschwitz. I’m sure we’ve all had these thoughts somehow – while a massive human atrocity was playing out in one part of the world, what was I doing? Sleeping, being bored in school, worrying about a zit, bowling? You can’t help but feel that, regardless of your personal knowledge, you’ve failed those going through something horrible.

I felt that the scenes set in Auschwitz and in Poland in the days before Sophie’s incarceration are by far the most interesting. The frivolity of Stingo’s “coming of age” story in the late ’40’s throws into sharp relief the horrors of the concentration camp, but they fell flat for me. I hugely disliked the narrator of the story, enough so that it coloured a little bit how I viewed the book. As Sophie is struggling to breathe around her guilt and her loss, Stingo is a self-obsessed narcissist who thinks of nothing other than his virginity. So, maybe a typical young 20-something, but he did not have the depth to make up for his superficialities. He was basically a molester with no thought other than how to get off with girls – even as Sophie unspools her horrific tale he tries to use her emotions against her to get into bed with her. He is VERY icky with women, even ones he professes to adore – as seen at one point when he has the offhand thought that he’d like to rape a girl who was being a “cocktease” to him. And he goes on and on about how he’s good looking enough, nice enough, so what is wrong with all the women in the world for not giving him sex? Classic “nice guy” attitude, it just sickened me.

As for Sophie’s abusive relationship, for me that was wrapped up with her own personal guilt as well – she allowed herself to be entirely taken in by a mad man who would kill her because in the end, she felt she deserved to die. This book was tragic and haunting, even with a dislikable narrator. I feel like it’s one I’ll revisit again, and probably get something entirely different out of it the next time.

Sophie’s Choice is my choice for a banned book. I believe it has mainly been banned due to graphic sexual content – although in this day and age it’s hardly that exciting of stuff. I read somewhere that some places also had issues with the racism throughout, although when I went back to look for details I couldn’t find anything on it … regardless, this book is considered one of the greats in American literature in the 20th century, and some people were definitely opposed it, and still are.

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