Reading Roundup #12
I’m terribly behind in my reading roundups, especially since I try to limit each to only five. So the books I didn’t overly care for I’ll just list at the end.
The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews by Patrick Desbois
My mom loaned me this book and it was by far one of the two most depressing and horrifying books I read in 2016. Desbois is a Catholic priest from France who has made it his life’s work to identify and examine all of the sites where Jews were murdered by Nazi mobile units in Ukraine early in World War II. Like many people, I didn’t think of Ukraine as being a site of exterminations during the Holocaust, yet it’s estimated that over 1.5 million Jews were rounded up and shot there by the Nazis. Desbois first learned of the mass killing grounds in Ukraine from his grandfather, who was a French POW interned at a camp there. It was his grandfather who first heard rumors and ultimately learned what the Nazis were doing. Civilians always suffer during war but in Ukraine, they suffered even more since World War II was followed by decades of brutal oppression under the Soviet Union. And it’s exactly why the true story of the Ukrainian Holocaust remained untold for so long. The governments denied mass killings took place and the people who witnessed them were too scared to speak up. It was really sad to read how some elderly residents wouldn’t speak to Desbois, even after more than 50 years had passed. I suppose that fear always remains, even though all that Desbois and his team cared about was providing proper burials for the victims.
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
When it comes to Thomas Jefferson, his oldest daughter Martha has always been a supporting character (think the film Jefferson in Paris). So when I learned there was a novel about Martha told from her point of view, I was immediately intrigued. It begins in her childhood (when her father was a rabble rouser against England with his quiet yet purposeful speeches), and follows them to Paris where he’s appointed ambassador to France. This is supposedly when and where the president’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings began so it was definitely a reversal of stories hearing the truth come out from Martha’s voice. It was also interesting to read about the crumbling of the French monarchy and what life was like on the streets of Paris at that time. Even more fascinating was learning about Monticello and discovering just how financially bereft it was for how long. Today it’s a beautiful masterpiece to visit but it wasn’t always. I think what makes this novel extra special is all of the research the authors acquired was through Martha’s and others’ letters. It’s fictionalized yes, but it’s also quite an intimate read.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
I wrote this in my Best of 2016 post, but I just devoured In the Garden of Beasts. It tells the story of William Dodd, the man who would become America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1933. Dodd’s family accompanies him on his post- his wife, son, and daughter Martha, who would soon make quite the name for herself in her new home with her endless affairs with one Nazi official after the other. At first Dodd is much like the rest of the global community where Hitler is concerned-he doesn’t take Hitler seriously, and writes him off as anything but the dangerous mad man he is. But then with chilling alarm, they see the true extent and power of Hitler’s Nazi party-Jews attacked, the press censored, restrictive new laws enacted . One knows so much about the Nazis once they invaded the Czech Republic and then Poland, which brought about World War II, but how much of the origins do you know prior to those events? I read this while in Germany and even though it is set in Berlin (a city I didn’t get to), it put so much into perspective. I think the saddest thing was learning how the United States did too little, too late. Once the true enormity of the situation became clearer with Dobb’s cables to the State Department and even the President, still no one took them seriously.
Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen
I read this immediately after In the Garden of Beasts, a tough act to follow, and I think that somewhat accounted for my disappointment. That, and I had read another book of Cullen’s, Mrs. Poe, which I really enjoyed. Twain’s End is a fictionalized telling of the personal life of one of America’s most iconic and beloved writers, Mark Twain. It’s told through the voice of Isabel Lyon, a real life person who served as Twain’s private secretary for seven years even though the two had known each other much longer. You learn how as with most creative geniuses, Twain could be a terrible person with his treatment of people but especially his family and those who knew him best and loved him most. The crux of the book is Lyon’s going from the person Twain trusted his life to, to someone he sets out to destroy by slandering her in the newspapers, all with the help of his daughter Clara, who loathed Lyon for different reasons. I think Twain’s horrible behavior and overall obnoxiousness was one of the reasons I just could not fully love it.
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
In my freshman year of college I took a class on 20th century African history. It was in that class where I first learned of the Berlin Conference, the infamous event where European countries decided which African lands they would “take” for themselves, in the name of colonizing for the natives’ good, that is. King Leopold’s Ghost tells the sad story of the Belgian Congo (there was also a French Congo) at the hand of Belgium’s notorious King Leopold. I knew from past lectures and other writings that a reign of terror existed in the Belgian Congo during Leopold’s “ownership” of it and that he took the riches from Congo’s natural resources for himself. But it’s another thing to read an almost 400 page telling of it, recounting the brutal ways in which the Congolese people were terrorized all to produce more rubber to make Leopold’s coffers even richer. He was a classic example of enough never being enough. And while he brutalized millions , he also defrauded his own nation’s people by lying for years about the Congo, and why the riches accrued flowed to him and not them. If you were wondering about the heroism part of the title, there were a few brave souls who worked to bring attention to the true, heinous nature of Leopold’s Congo and what was really going on there. Leopold did end up being “removed” as leader of the Belgian Congo, but the damage was long done, millions were dead, others’ lives forever ruined. I normally enjoy historical non-fiction but this was a bit much.
During this period I also read:
Before the Fall
The Secret of Magic
Have you read anything good lately?