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BOOKed: Holocaust Novels, a Memoir and the Work-Life Debate

October 15, 2013
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This month, we highlight two novels centered around the Holocaust that were published in past years but return to public attention now — in one case, because of an upcoming movie version and in the other, because of a new edition from a major publishing company. Plus, hear our reviewer's takes on the tell-all memoir of a gay hairstylist and the non-fiction book that's been making national waves in the work-life balance debate. 

These recommendations are brought to you by a team of voracious readers in our community who volunteered to offer their thoughts on the latest and greatest books. All of the books featured here are either written by a Jewish author or contain Jewish themes. 

 

Once We Were Brothers
By Ronald H. Balson
(392 pages, St. Martin's Griffin Trade Paperback)

It's no wonder that a major publisher jumped to reprint this debut novel that Chicago lawyer Ronald Balson originally self-published in 2010 — his story of a Holocaust survivor's courtroom battle will have you hooked from the start. 

Once We Were Brothers weaves past and present together through the lives of Ben Solomon, a Polish immigrant who lived through the Holocaust, and Catherine Lockhart, an attorney who is struggling to put her life back together after a failed marriage and career setback. Their paths cross after Ben publicly accuses wealthy philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig of actually being Otto Piatek, a Nazi war criminal.  

At first, Catherine is reluctant to help — she has a career to rebuild and billable hours to accrue. But Ben tells a gripping story of how he and Otto, a non-Jewish boy, were raised side-by-side in Poland in the 1930s. As the Nazis gained power, Otto’s birth parents reappeared and encouraged their son to align himself with the party. Though Otto initially stood beside his adopted family, Ben’s father also insisted that he join the Nazis, believing this could keep him safe and also benefit the whole family. But as World War II progresses, Otto embraces his role, leaving Ben, his family and his young wife on their own to survive. 

Even though the book jumps between time periods, you will immediately be drawn into the character's lives and care for them deeply. Balson also raises big questions about religion and genocide through Ben’s eyes. During a meeting when Catherine mentions that the extermination of millions of Jews seems incomprehensible in modern times, Ben responds, “Incomprehensible because we’re Americans? We’ve authored our own chapters in the history of shame." He goes on to reference how early America built an economy based on slavery and trampled entire cultures of Native Americans. "Find a reason to turn your nose up at a culture, to denigrate a people because they’re different, and it’s not such a giant leap from ethnic subjugation to ethnic slaughter." 

Once We Were Brothers is a perfect, satisfying, delightful read that should appeal to many tastes. It has history, adventure, romance, intrigue and even courtroom drama. I read much of it through tears, both happy and sad. 

- Karen Eckstein-Sarkissian

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak
(550 pages, Random House)

This haunting story about life, humankind and the power of words will bring you to tears and stir your soul. Although Zusak's novel was originally published in 2006, it comes to the big screen this November. If you're an avid reader like me, you will want to finish the book before watching the motion picture. 

The novel, which is narrated by Death, revolves around a young girl named Liesel Meminger who is living in Nazi Germany with her foster family. Death is a surprisingly empathetic and kind character who seems to connect with the living. He is appalled by the horrors of World War II and fascinated by Liesel's ability to remain strong and hopeful after experiencing so much loss in her young life.  

As he watches Liesel's family hide a Jewish boxer in their basement, Death sees the goodness in humans and realizes that there are kind, brave souls living in the heart of Hitler's homeland. He listens to Liesel, who is not Jewish, read books to her frightened neighbors in a cramped basement shelter while bomb sirens blare above and marvels at her inner strength. Finally, as he carries too many millions of innocent souls to heaven, Death cringes at the evil in the world and the waste of so many lives. "I am haunted by humans," he says. 

Though Zusak based this heartbreaking novel on stories his mother told him from her childhood in Nazi Germany, this is not your typical Holocaust book. Zusak doesn't speak at length about the concentration camps or the atrocities that the victims experienced. However, you know what is happening through Death's omniscient view of the world and it still sickens you to your core. At the same time, Death's perspective makes you think about those who managed to live righteously despite everything they saw and heard. Hopefully, the movie will do justice to Zusak's beautiful words. 

- Melissa Rosenthal

A Short Jew in the Body of a Tall W.A.S.P (A Gay Melodrama in 13 Acts)
By Mark Okun
(204 pages, Dog Ear Publishing)

Growing up is hard in general. Throw in being Jewish, adopted and gay on top of that, and you have one heck of a coming of age story. In this chatty, emotional memoir, Mark Okun shares what it feels like to grow up as an outsider within his family, his religion and society at large. He doesn't throw any punches as he divulges every detail from his preteen days to his current life working as a successful hairstylist in Miami.

Okun's light, conversational tone feels at times like you're catching up with your best friend, but that doesn't negate the seriousness of the issues he deals with. He shares the love, loss and hardship of growing up gay in Brooklyn, contracting HIV and eventually coming into his own in Florida.

This memoir offers a fascinating glimpse into what it was like to be gay in a recent, yet very different climate. And even if you’re not into that, who doesn’t love a story involving a sassy Jewish mother named Sylvia?

- Victoria Karpman

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
By Sheryl Sandberg
(240 pages, Random House) 

Women’s equality in the workplace may seem like an issue of the past, but Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg makes a strong case that there is still much to improve. While her book focuses on the workplace, she also delves into the household. Her "Lean In" concept refers to reallocating family responsibilities rather than perpetuating the traditional roles of men and women. Her position reflects a modern society in which women are not the only primary caregiver and partners are expected to help with things like childcare and the dishes. 

As one of three kids with parents who both worked full-time, Sandberg's arguments didn't seem so earth-shattering to me. My dad was the one who helped pack lunches and drove us to school. I married a man who's a better cook, laundry folder and dish washer than I am, and I have full confidence that he will be excited to share domestic responsibilities when we have a family.  But then something happens to remind me that many people still don't share such progressive views about women. When a woman began chanting the Haftarah at services recently, an older man sitting nearby muttered, “Really, a woman…?”

What I enjoyed most about the book was Sandberg’s delicate balance between philosophical discourse and her personal narrative. Her tone is honest and approachable. She tries try to use language that is inviting to all walks of people and the choices they make. For example, she continually mentions her respect for moms who choose to stay at home as well as those who work full-time. Throughout the book, she also takes care to acknowledge her upperclass status and all of the opportunities that come along with having wealth. Her socioeconomic status remains a sticking point to naysayers who feel that she is disconnected to the realities of work/life balance, however, I think her philosophy does apply to a widespread audience.

In Sandberg's view, the supportive structures we have in our lives empower us to be our best and most confident selves both at home and in our work. But the chips are stacked against women as they historically have earned less than men and still hold far fewer leadership positions. (See more about this in her TED talk.)

Sandberg argues that women must move beyond gender bias to be successful. She invites readers to join her Lean In movement, a growing organization of grass-roots discussion groups. Her book is a must for women and men. 

- Stephanie Singer

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