Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

Hope: A Tragedy

Five words from the blurb: hiding, attic, history, Nazi, family

Hope: A Tragedy begins with Solomon Kugel, a Jewish-American man, discovering Anne Frank in his attic. Kugel’s attempts to inform authorities are met with disbelief so he decides to look after the elderly woman himself. This leads to many entertaining scenes, but the humor is cleverly used to deliver deeper messages about the guilt faced by Holocaust survivors and how society feels it must atone for the suffering of others during WWII.

I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it a few years ago, but was reluctant to read it as I haven’t had much success with Jewish comedies before. Then I came across a cheap copy in a charity shop and decided to give it a try. I’m so pleased I did because it handles difficult subjects with originality and wit.

We are rational creatures, Professor Jove explained: hope is irrational. We thus set ourselves up for one dispiriting fall after the next. Anger and depression are not diseases or dysfunctions or anomalies; they are perfectly rational responses to the myriad of avoidable disappointments that begin in thoroughly irrational hope.
Kugel wasn’t sure he understood. Professor Jove smiled warmly.
Tell me, he said. Hitler was the last century’s greatest what?
Kugel had shrugged.
Optimist, said Professor Jove. Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That’s why he was the biggest monster.

Some of the passages could be considered offensive (especially to those with strong religious beliefs) but I felt the satire was justified as it highlighted many of the problems with today’s society.

There were a few references to the Jewish religion that went over my head, but these didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. It will probably resonate more strongly with those of Jewish descent, but most of the themes are universal and tackled in an original and thought provoking way.

Stay away from Hope: A Tragedy if you find the idea of Holocaust humor abhorrent, but if you have an open mind and are willing to tolerate some outrageous plot developments then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book.



2011 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

Blooms of Darkness Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Winner of the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: Holocaust, Jewish, boy, hides, brothel

Blooms of Darkness is set during WWII and follows an eleven-year-old Jewish boy as he is forced to leave his family and hide from the Nazis in a brothel.

Blooms of Darkness is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It isn’t a roller coaster of emotions, it is an endlessly bleak book without a glimmer of hope anywhere. I think the fact it is narrated by an innocent child, separated from his friends and family, makes it have even more impact. The loneliness and grief were heartbreaking and the thought of any child growing up in such terrible circumstances is hard to take.

Very little happened, but the observations and emotions were powerful and realistic – the author’s own experiences as a Jewish boy in hiding gave this book a painful authenticity. The writing style was simple and quiet and it was surprising to see how distressing a book could be without actually containing any graphic scenes.  The fear of discovery and imagining what might have happened to loved ones was enough to give this book a terrible sense of impending doom:

Hugo refused to think about what had happened to Erwin in the ghetto. One night they sealed off the orphanage on all sides, took the orphans out of their beds, and loaded them onto trucks while they were still in their pyjamas. The orphans wept and cried out for help, but no one did anything. Anyone who opened a window or went out would be shot.

It seems wrong to criticise a book for revealing the painful truth, but the continual darkness was too much for me. I longed for a few lighter moments to penetrate the bleakness, but I guess I’ll just have to take comfort in the fact that I’m lucky enough to never have experienced anything like this.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know what it is like to be a child living in constant fear, but I’m sure it will be too distressing for many.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Aharon has shown why he considered one of the foremost Hebrew writers. Winstondad’s Blog

…there’s nothing in the novel which makes it stand out amongst its peers and competitors. Tony’s Reading List

It’s a sombre work, because it deals with the Holocaust, but it’s beautiful all the same… ANZ Litlovers Litblog



2012 Books in Translation Non Fiction Recommended books

HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Five words from the blurb: mission, assassinate, Nazi, novelist, truth

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book, but it is all justified. HHhH breaks the mould, creating a new genre that will change the way you look at non-fiction and lead you to question the accuracy of everything you read.

The book tells the compelling story of two Czechoslovakian parachutists who were sent to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Nazi secret services. Dropped near Prague in 1942 the pair spend months plotting the event, relying on the support of a secret network of people. The book also charts the rise of Heydrich, explaining the important role he had in the creation of the Nazi death camps.

Throughout the book the author explains the research he did to obtain each fact and ensures that nothing is ambiguous. To retain the gripping narrative style Binet frequently makes things up, but every time he does so the passage will be followed by one that explains exactly which parts were fabricated:

That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet – a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.

I loved this honesty and it made me realise how many difficult choices authors of historical fiction must make each time they write a scene.

I love meta-fiction and so appreciated the way the author addressed the reader directly. His chatty style was easy to read and often amusing. He made some blunt, often scathing, comments about other historical fiction authors, but although I didn’t always agree with him, it was refreshing to read about someone not scared to voice their opinion.

I’ve seen a few comments about people avoiding this book because of the Holocaust connections, but although the death camps were mentioned, this book does not describe them in graphic detail. It isn’t a depressing book; it is a gripping story revolving around whether or not the parachutists will be successful in their mission. It does take a while for the pace to build, but the final few chapters were some of the most exciting I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down and was totally engrossed in the story of these men.

HHhH shares many themes with The Street Sweeper, but unlike that amazing book, this is flawless. HHhH has leaped over The Street Sweeper to become my favourite read of 2012 so far.

Highly recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I kept finding myself frustrated. Just when a section of non-fiction was beginning to really grip an authorial intervention would break the spell.  Just William’s Luck

The style is an unusual construction, but for me it was highly effective and extremely engaging. The Little Reader Library

I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel. Gaskella

2010 Novella

Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel

I loved Life of Pi so much that I bought a copy of Beatrice and Virgil from the US, months before it was released in the UK. Unfortunately my enthusiasm failed to pay off as I was very disappointed by it. 

Beatrice and Virgil is a book about the Holocaust, but there are many points when it is almost impossible to see the connection.

The book begins with Henry, a successful author, ranting about a publisher refusing to let him write a book which combines non-fictional accounts of the Holocaust with fictional ones.  One day Henry receives a strange package from a taxidermist, also called Henry, and is so intrigued he heads off to meet him. The taxidermist has written a play about a monkey and a donkey who live on a shirt. This play becomes the focus of the book, as the two Henrys discuss how to improve it.

The play is an allegory for the Holocaust, but the continual use of symbolism drove me mad. I’m afraid that I’m the type of person who prefers to call a spade a spade! I loved The Kindly Ones because it showed the Holocaust in all its horrific rawness, but although Beatrice and Virgil didn’t shy away from graphic violence, I found myself cringing as I read it rather than experiencing the sense of shock and sadness that I should have felt.

Another problem I had with the book was that it felt disjointed. For such a small book there were a lot of random elements thrown together, some so odd that they left me totally baffled. There was one point where they spent 8 pages trying to describe a pear – my eyes were rolling throughout:

BEATRICE: Like an apple?

VIRGIL: No, not at all like an apple! An apple resists being eaten. An apple is not eaten, it is conquered. The crunchiness of a pear is far more appealing. It is giving and fragile. To eat a pear is akin to…kissing.

BEATRICE: Oh, my. It sounds so good.

The end of the book contained a section called Games for Gustav. This is a series of questions about the moral dilemmas faced by those affected by the Holocaust.

Your ten-year-old son is speaking to you. He says he has found a way of obtaining some potatoes to feed your starving family. If he is caught, he will be killed. Do you let him go? 

Each of these would make an interesting premise for a story, but placed together in this way I found them to be manipulative and irritating.

Overall I found that the whole book made my blood boil with rage. It could be said that this is a positive reaction; that it is far better for an author to create a book that is memorable in its dreadfulness than one which is dull and forgettable. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds!

Beatrice and Virgil is the perfect book club choice as I guarantee it will create discussion – people will be arguing about this book for years to come.

What did Yann Martel have to say about his book?


On 3rd June 2010 I went to see Yann Martel talk about his new book at the South Bank Centre in London.  He was an entertaining speaker, willing and eager to answer questions from the public and regularly able to make us all laugh. I tried to make as many notes as possible, but the following is a summary of what he had to say – not direct quotes from him.

Why did you write the book?

I had noticed that there was an absence of fictional books about the Holocaust. People seem to be relaxed writing about wars, but are scared to write about the Holocaust. I wanted to fill this gap, so this book is an attempt to meet the Holocaust without being a witness.

Why did you use animals in the book?

The inspiration for using animals came from The Life of Pi. It is an obvious literary device, but I wanted to select animals that would be guides through the Hell that is the Holocaust. Selecting Dante’s guides seemed like a natural choice.

Why did you spend eight pages describing a pear?

Language trivialises pears. The section shows that no amount of words can adequately describe a pear, so how can we describe something as complex as war if we can’t even describe an object as simple as a pear?

What is the sewing kit about?

The sewing kit contains a lot of random literary elements. I wanted to list them together to see how many people would recognise and how many would “stick”.

Why did you give the central characters the same name?

The two central characters are both called Henry. This is because I didn’t want people to deduce anything about their personality from the name. I wanted to show that a person only lives the way they do by the random lottery of where they are born. We are all essentially the same.

Where is the book set?

The setting of the book is deliberately never mentioned. This is because I wanted the book to be universal – it could equally be set in almost any country of the world.

What is your next book about?

Three chimps in Portugal (note – I couldn’t decide if this is true or just a joke!)

What do you think?

Did you enjoy Beatrice and Virgil?

Is a book a success if it is memorable and provokes discussion?