Review: All That I Am

Ruth Becker has entered an advanced old age and against the doctor’s prognosis of memory loss due to the onset of this age, she begins to remember more, not less of things that happened. “Clear as day.”

I had very good eyes once. Though it’s another thing to say what I saw. In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.

Ruth receives papers from 1939, it is a memoir from Toller, a significant person from her past, and the memories from this time come flooding back to her. The story is told in alternating perspectives/chapters with Ruth in present day, and Toller, the revolutionary playwright, in 1939. At the soul of this story is Dora. Dora is the common thread between Toller, her lover and Ruth, her cousin and whom is profoundly loved, treasured and remembered by both.

This alternating time span is something to always keep in mind and remember that each story/chapter is taking place over 50 years apart from each other. At times I found I was a bit muddled and had to remind myself that Toller’s story is from 1939 and Ruth’s is reliving, but in the present day. Toller is writing his memoirs at the tender age of 40, in the safety of a hotel room in New York City. Ruth receives these papers when she is quite old, to where she is currently living in Australia. Both are sharing memories of their shared political ties and of their moving loss and longing for Dora.

Toller, Dora and Ruth were members of the Independent Social Democrats that were fierce in their political opposition to Hitler. They were often tied to the Communist party and were therefore watched, other members were systemically executed, jailed, or forced to escape in to exile in other countries. They fought to expose what they knew about the Nazis and predicted the atrocities of “the little hysteric”, Hitler. The cover of this novel (pictured above) illustrates a defining moment in this story and is when Ruth hangs that red flag of the left movement, during a parade for Hitler at the time he is sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.

This is a point of view I have not read about or learned before. I have not read or known much about the opposing political groups that so fiercely fought against Hitler, or the methods that were in place in the early 30s to rid Germany of these opposition groups. Funder presents it very methodically and has obviously done a fair amount of research in to this. She  is also writing this story using real events and people. For instance, I did not know that originally the concentration camps were built to hold political opposers. And as Elizabeth’s review of The Zookeeper’s Wife mentions, the more you learn about the Nazis and their brutality, the more disgusted you are.

Funder writes with short, crisp sentences, and many of her one line sentences can take the breath out of you. So many are filled with poignance and beauty they make you stop and savour, especially those particular ones that hit you square in the heart.

So, as earlier mentioned, Ruth and Toller are remembering/writing of their political opposition and activity prior to 1939. As far as the main characters go, Ruth in her present time is a fantastic character. She is acerbic and sharp as a tack. She made me smile often. However, back in the day, she comes across as a bit of a follower and perhaps too star struck by her fanatically political cousin Dora. The more she remembers however, the more she confuses herself of what year she is in. She becomes completely lost in her memories. You do also wait until almost the end of hear of a bitter betrayal by Ruth’s husband then, Hans. It’s terrible and breaks your heart! Toller is a man that has risen to fame based on his imprisonment and the plays and speeches written during his captivity, and really, to the endorsement of Dora. He is however, a fairly quiet man with personal demons that perhaps is a bit “confused” or uncertain of the power he holds and of the influence he has on many. During this story we mainly hear of his great love for Dora.  Dora on the other hand, is a character that I struggled to like to be honest. She is a relentless political activist (no shame there) but she is “spoiled” in a way – she speaks of “free love” and doesn’t want children, marriage, wants to be able to be with any man she pleases, yet the same doesn’t hold for Toller. She’s prone to tantrums when Toller finds other women and when the focus on their political activity is not contributed solely to her actions. She is quick to point out her role in Toller’s rise to fame, the risks she takes to ensure Toller’s documents are saved. They are heroic, certainly, she has single handedly preserved this great man’s history and the role he played in trying to draw public attention to Hitler. But she just doesn’t hold that place in my heart as a true heroine, more like a finicky petulant know-it-all. But my opinion may be off as it appeared that Ruth and Toller felt as though they needed to protect her, make many assurances that they were not “leaving her”, as though she were a fragile object needing great care. Indeed she is written as a slight, and petite pixie-like character. Perhaps there is some meaning hidden there that I haven’t picked up upon.

This cover here to your left, is the version that I was reading. Note the girl with the red coat. Throughout the story, Dora is mentioned often as wearing a red coat. It was very “Schindler’s List-like”.

When I turned round she was already gone – halfway back along the carriage, walking briskly, shoulders hunched. Then she turned sideways and disappeared, a red coat swallowed by a grey crowd.

Therefore, both covers of this book show a significant detail noted in the story. (Just to bring a few things to your attention, if you will.)

I marked many, many passages in the book – I have little pieces of paper everywhere because there is so many interesting (and sordid) passages about Hitler’s reign and what he did to ensure the voice heard in Germany was only his own. He “de-nationalized” all political opponents, forcing them from Germany. Those countries that took them in as refugees had their visas state they were not allowed to engage in any political activity of any kind, in essence, Hitler did everything to ensure complete silence to any opposition to his rule.

In the beginning, immediately following the First World War, this book was very similar to the audiobook, All our Worldly Goods. It was similar in that the writing of the plight of the WWI soldiers was so exquistely written with such wonderful detail that I felt pain in my heart. Both books touched very heartwrenchingly upon the public’s feeling of the soldiers post-war – men to be hidden away, their heroism replaced with disgust. They reminded everyone too much of things they wished to forget.

“They are coming to assess whether he, Theo Poepke, can return to civilian life, or whether he will be sent for the foreseeable future to one of the secret military hospitals. This is not a health issue. It is one of morale: the authorities do not want the horrifically wounded to sabotage support for the war, to frighten women on trams.”

In the end, I was planning on assigning 3.5 stars to this book. Even though it was immensely interesting learning about the political resistance to Hitler and his ideologies, I felt that at times, I had to force myself in a way to continue reading. It wasn’t that the writing wasn’t well done, actually, the writing is gorgeous. It is simply that it didn’t drive me hard enough to keep wanting to pick it up. It is a fantastic story, there was that something missing for me.

And then, the last few chapters explode with greatness and I waffle now for that 4th star. Oh, but why did we have to wait until the very, very end to have everything come tumbling out – the settling of the “mystery” surrounding Dora’s death, the betrayal of Hans, the imprisonment of Ruth, etc. etc. A very, very powerful and wonderful ending.  Sigh! I’m waffling.

JUST READ IT! Book Review: A Good American

 Go to your new home, Frederick Meisenheimer. Go and be a good American.

I instantly fell in love with A Good American. I fell head over heels in love for Frederick and Jette by the time I hit page 7.  I am also mad for Mr. George’s writing. It is so eloquent, so smooth, so wonderful. This is the man’s first novel? He’s a writing genius!

There were times during this tale that I cried so hard I couldn’t see the words swimming in front of me. There were times during this tale when I laughed out loud. As Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) praises on the back cover, this book “…had me alternately laughing and crying but always riveted. It’s a rich, rare treat of a book.” This couldn’t have been better stated. It was one of those “I can’t put this down” kind of read.

A Good American is a tale about Frederick and Jette’s move to America from Hanover, Germany in 1904. An immediate exodus is required following a blow out with Jette’s snobby mother who could not accept the love Frederick had for Jette. The story is told from the perspective of Frederick and Jette’s grandson, James and is told with so much love and honour and humour too, it made me smile and wistful from the very first pages. (and when you get to the part where you realize why they bestowed the name James, grab your tissues. You’ll actually need many tissues off and on however. I’m just warning you now.)

It can also be considered a love letter to America in a way, with all its dreams, hopes and promises. And yet, sometimes the very ugly side of America too. It has hints of Forrest Gump, as we travel through two World Wars, presidential assassians and a walk down musical memory lane with nods to ragtime, blues, Louie Armstrong, Glen Miller mentions, etc.

Any lingering homesickness had been eradicated by his first excursion onto the streets of America. Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of Hanover, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest. He was smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.

And so began my grandfather’s rapturous love affair with America — an affair that would continue until the day he died.

And depending on your viewpoint, Twitter was a marvelous engine to regale/stalk (see it depends on your/his viewpoint) Alex George with 140 characters of gushing love for this book. I cannot gush enough about the writing and the story itself, about how wonderfully and effortlessly the words roll off the pages. There is just the right (superb) amount of description, emotion and detail. The Meisenheimer’s and the other cast of fabulous characters will never let you go. Alex George has captured the family unit with all the little misunderstandings and misinterpretations with utter brillance along with all the quirks and quarks associated with life in a small town. The whole thing is just damn beautiful.  You honestly need to experience for yourself. And there’s a few little humdingers of secrets that await you at the end too!

An enthusiastic, two solid thumbs up, 5 star read, in my opinion! Oh! That feels so good! I needed a solid 5 star read! And A Good American seals that deal and meant it needed a standing ovation filled with laughter and tears and also, sadness knowing that I will no longer be spending time in Beatrice, Missouri.

(are you reading it yet? Go on! Go! Get it! Start reading!)

Review: The Detour

I’ll start right off by saying I’m only giving it the 2.5 star rating. 2.5 stars means “meh, take it or leave it.” And that is so bizarre that I’m giving it this rating, when every single rating on Goodreads is vastly, vastly different from mine. But I can honestly say and from the very beginning, it never grabbed a strong hold on me. There were just far too many unnecessary details throughout that didn’t allow for more than just a passing interest in finishing the story.  The climatical ending holds beautiful writing, but by this point, it was too late for me.

Ernst Vogler, the young German sent on a mission to bring back an important Roman sculpture to the Furher, or Der Kunstsammler (the Collector). His story is told through two time periods, one 5 years following WWII and the other during the week-long time period in 1938. In 1938 he is given the duty to travel to Italy to collect a sculpture and see its safe transfer back to Germany.

Synopsis (from Goodreads): Ernst Vogler is twenty-six years old in 1938 when he is sent to Rome by his employer—the Third Reich’s Sonderprojekte, which is collecting the great art of Europe and bringing it to Germany for the Führer. Vogler is to collect a famous Classical Roman marble statue, The Discus Thrower, and get it to the German border, where it will be turned over to Gestapo custody. It is a simple, three-day job.
Things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Italian twin brothers who have been hired to escort Vogler to the border seem to have priorities besides the task at hand—wild romances, perhaps even criminal jobs on the side—and Vogler quickly loses control of the assignment. The twins set off on a dangerous detour and Vogler realizes he will be lucky to escape this venture with his life, let alone his job. With nothing left to lose, the young German gives himself up to the Italian adventure, to the surprising love and inevitable losses along the way.

Ernst is described as the ideal German, not questioning, paying strict attention to detail, efficient and is supportive of this growing attention to the preservation or creation of a strong and united Germany. Or rather, this is how Ernst feels best describes himself and how others see him. Actually, I think Ernst was chosen for this duty because of his sheep-like and non-questioning personality. This is what allows those in Italy (the Germans actually) to pull the old “bait and switch” on Hitler and send Ernst on his way with only a copy of the statue (The Roman Discus Thrower).

What follows is a lengthy and drawn out journey, filled with many unnecessary details that only continued to bore me. Oh it had such potential and I really wanted to love it so, but it just kept falling flat for me.

Ernst and his two Italian companions are to get the statue to the German border in 3 days. Unfortunately the mishaps that follow never really amount to anything that would create fierce tension or intense worry that you might imagine would come from this type of story. Pulling a switcheroo on Hitler? Being chased by people that are supposed to support Hitler in his quest for collecting Europe’s artistic treasures? Unfortunately, in my opinion it just never gains that momentum or intensity you imagine one would feel reading this story so that once you reach the climax, you’re interest has waned too much to be drawn back to it.

It had such potential, what an exciting premise, but I still feel it was too bogged down with unnecessary, meandering descriptions that took so much away from this story. I have not really read about this aspect of Hitler’s reign….the looting of Europe’s finest works of art for the Nazi cultural project, and Ernst’s job following the war of repatriating these great works back to the countries from which they were stolen. But the beautiful story and writing happens too late for me to warrant a higher rating. That makes me sad, but throughout I really didn’t feel overwhelming love, until the final two chapters.

..vast effort, the most important job of my life, far more important than the job I’d been given in 1938. It was a chance for me to redeem myself, the first time I even dared to think about what life could become again.  Ernst Volger