Goodreads: Survival in Auschwitz
Summary: Primo Levi, an Italian chemist and Jew, chronicles his year in the Auschwitz concentration camp from February 1944 until January 1945.
Review: First published in Italian as If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), the book focuses less on the horrors of the Holocaust that have, perhaps, become well-known to most schoolchildren and more on the psychological implications of those horrors. The work distinguishes itself further from the multitude of works on the same subject, however, by not solely focusing on the mentality of those who worked the concentration camps, but also on the changing nature of those imprisoned there. As time progresses in the book, Levi’s astute observations of those around him ask an increasingly urgent question: can those who have had everything stripped away from them still be considered men?
The question is provocative. One might expect that a Jew writing about the Holocaust would wish to convey exactly the opposite observation—that these men, women, and children were undeniably human and that the crimes committed against them were thus undeniably outrageous. The conflict evident in Levi’s thoughts about the matter, however, only serves to underscore the nature of the atrocities committed. When a man himself begins to question whether he is still a man, then the attempt to dehumanize a group of people is truly complete.
Despite Levi’s inner turmoil, however, the better part of the human spirit continues to break through the darkness. A particularly moving chapter recounts Levi’s attempts to recall the words of Ulysses to his sailors in Dante’s Divine Comedy—words that encourage them to seek for knowledge and to live as men rather than as beasts (Canto XXVI of the Inferno, if you feel inclined to look it up). His struggle to recapture the lines has an intense significance he cannot define or understand, especially as he insists throughout the narrative that no amount of skill or intelligence can save anyone in the camps–only luck spares some. His inability to articulate the meaning of the poetry suggests that it is not the intellect of men that defines that as such, but rather the limitations of that intellect. The ineffable experience of poetry somehow connects to the senselessness of the camps; the meaning of both proves elusive and Levi can do nothing but struggle through as best he can. He may feel that he has failed, but sometimes nothing seems so human as failure.
Survival in Auschwitz is a haunting book that raises deep questions through deceptively simple prose. Self-reflective, it does not content itself with heaping blame on those who perpetuated the crimes at the concentration camps, but takes a long look at the mind of the author as he was during his time in Auschwitz. What he sees clearly perplexes and sometimes troubles him; he knows he has not descended to the bestial nature of some of the others around him, but also knows that he is never far from falling. Survival for Levi is not so much a fight to live as it is a fight to retain a sense of his own soul and his own dignity when everything around him suggests they no longer exist.
Review: Stanley provides a lot of information in a small space, chronicling Michelangelo’s entire life from his upbringing in the home of a stonecutter’s wife to his death and legacy. She wastes no words, but vividly brings Renaissance Florence to life through the eyes of one its greatest contributors. The focus on Michelangelo’s viewpoints and emotions makes the history Stanley recounts seem fresh and exciting; the artist perhaps had more troubles and passions than many readers realize.
The attention to detail in both the text proves integral to making Stanley’s biography capture the interest of readers. The author does not merely recount the facts of Michelangelo’s life and times, but adds information pertinent to understanding her subject. Thus, readers do not simply learn that Michelangelo painted frescoes, but also what a fresco is—and just how difficult it was to create one. Though readers may have admired Michelangelo’s work before picking up the book, understanding the process behind the artwork may increase their admiration even more.
Readers not familiar with all the pieces Stanley references need not fret, however. Stanley reproduces much of Michelangelo’s artwork in her illustrations, so that readers can form an idea of just how beautiful or unique his pieces were. The glimpses Stanley provides of his genius may very well inspire some of her audience to research his work further.
Stanley does a wonderful job of summarizing the life of one of the world’s greatest artists. She takes a large subject and makes it accessible and interesting for the average reader.
Summary: Walker follows the lives of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti (best known for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and the bronze doors on the Baptistery of San Giovanni, respectively).
Review: Despite Walker’s stated intent to illuminate how the rivalry between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti “changed the art world,” his book offers few interpretations of the events it describes. Rather, it switches between the two men, chronicling the works of art they created, the machines they invented, and the failures they experienced. Other artists such as Donatello and Masaccio also make appearances, so that the book provides an intriguing look at what many consider the birth of the Renaissance in Florence.
Though Walker expertly describes the atmosphere of Florence in the Quattrocento, highlighting the many advances made in art and mechanics, the title of the book proves misleading in more than one way. Not only does Walker fail clearly to make connections between the works of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, but he also seems to spend significantly more time on the accomplishments of Brunelleschi. Perhaps this is understandable since the great project of the day was the building of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the commission for which project Brunelleschi received. While Brunelleschi continued to receive various commissions for Santa Maria del Fiore and thus churned out an impressive array of architectural marvels and machines to meet the challenges he faced, Ghiberti remained occupied with the bronze doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni (as well as a series of other commissions that he consistently failed to complete on time). Even so, I had hoped to learn more about Ghiberti than I was given.
Despite the imbalance of information, however, Walker largely remains impartial while describing the feud between the two artists. His admiration of Brunelleschi is evident, but he takes care to note Brunelleschi’s weaknesses as well as Ghiberti’s strengths. For instance, when describing the first competition in which the two faced each other—the commission for the first set of bronze doors for the Baptistery—Walker acknowledges that art historians argue over the artistic merits of the pieces submitted by each of the two. He also explains, however, that it is clear that Ghiberti exhibited greater technical skill in this particular competition. Thus, Brunelleschi does not get all the glory in this book.
It seems almost impossible not to compare Walker’s book with Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. While both provide lively and engaging accounts of the early Italian Renaissance, Walker includes pertinent material that King does not. Both authors note that Brunelleschi and Ghiberti at one point engaged in a sonnet war to express their hatred of each other. King explains some of the insults exchanged, but Walker actually includes a translation of one of the sonnets. Walker also includes pictures of some of the marvelous artwork he describes, whereas King does not.
The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance is a highly informative as well as interesting look at two extraordinary men and their work. Walker has a clear love for the subject and will hopefully impart to his readers some of the enthusiasm that he feels for beautiful art and clever machines.
Goodreads: Bard of Avon
Review: The title of Stanley and Vennema’s work seems a little misleading. Since historians know so little about Shakespeare himself, the authors necessarily talk a lot more about the playwright’s world—the theatres, the system of patronage, the political atmosphere—than about the playwright. In doing so, they provide an informative overview of the theatre in Renaissance England made lively by the inclusion of detailed pictures. Unfortunately, however, Shakespeare remains a contentious topic, and the authors choose sides in debates without ever recognizing that debates exist. Presumably they wished to simplify the topic for young readers, but this approach necessarily raises questions about what young readers should be exposed to and when. Shakespeare gains much of his beauty from his complexity, and it seems to me a disservice to pretend that he and his works generate no dissent among scholars and critics.
Length constraints undoubtedly played a role in forcing the authors to skim over some of the controversies surrounding Shakespeare. Scholars, for example, argue about such matters as whether Shakespeare ever revised his plays and whether he wrote for the stage or for the page, but Stanley and Vennema simply explain that the playwright wrote for his actors and never reworked his lines. They also make assumptions about Shakespeare’s life, deducing from the scanty historical record that Shakespeare must have had an unhappy marriage and proposing that during his “lost years” he worked in his father’s business (though they do mention other suggested occupations).
Perhaps my greatest problem with the book lies in the attempt to explain the trajectory of Shakespeare’s work by linking groups of plays to his supposed emotions when writing them. The authors are not alone in trying to match the tragedies to an unhappy period in Shakespeare’s life and the comedies to a happy one, but such speculation never seemed particularly scholarly to me; an author does need to feel depressed in order to write a sad play. Such an assertion undermines Shakespeare’s artistic talent and limits his artistic vision.
A quiet literary judgment about Shakespeare’s work also seems to have been made in this biography. For many years, Shakespeare’s last plays (known under various names such as the comitragedies or the romances) were not highly regarded by critics. Perhaps the works consulted by Stanley and Vennema did not give the romances much attention as a result, for the authors here relegate them to a single line—in which they merely note that these last plays show a love of the countryside.
I recognize the merit of Stanley and Vennema’s work in light o f the need to make a difficult subject accessible to younger readers. The authors even provide a handy bibliography so young researchers can learn more about Shakespeare and the debates he has inspired. If I had children, I would probably even buy this book for them. Because I approached the book with my own ideas of what Shakespeare is, what he means, and how he should be treated, however, I found myself, when reading, sidetracked by questions of how I might have written a similar work. Is it possible to include all the questions surrounding Shakespeare? Is it even desirable? Maybe Shakespeare is a subject like chemistry where the first things students learn are often not true—but they have to be taught that way as a foundation for later learning.
Goodreads: Brunelleschi’s Dome
Summary: King chronicles Filippo Brunelleschi’s role in building the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy.
Review: King provides an intriguing look at the building of the famed dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Though the cover blurb suggests that King focuses on the personalities behind the construction of the church, he actually covers a wide range of subjects. From brick making to warring factions, the book makes the Renaissance come alive through lively prose that blends technical detail with historical fact.
The dual intent of the book to cover both Brunelleschi and his achievements makes the book a bit difficult to categorize. Those interested in Brunelleschi’s life, his world, and the obstacles facing him as he attempted to build the largest dome in history will find the first half of the book to their taste. However, as the book progresses, it focuses increasingly on Brunelleschi’s inventions. Although King attempts to make the technical aspects of machinery and architecture accessible to the layman, I suspect most readers will not understand the bulk of his language. He provides some diagrams, but they lack the kind of detail that would have helped me to follow his explanations. As a result, I found myself lost toward the end of the book—a fact which greatly disappointed me as I found the subject interesting and longed to understand the science behind the building of the dome.
Even so, Brunelleschi’s Dome delighted me with its account of one of the world’s great architectural achievements. I felt with King’s characters the excitement of pushing the boundaries of known science, the disappointment of failure, the wonder of man’s capacity. King has that rare gift for making history seem both accessible and relevant, and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Goodreads: The Ninemile Wolves
Summary: Bass tells the compelling story of the first wolf pack to re-settle in Montana outside of protected government land. While Bass approaches the wolves with a mixture of awe, compassion, and fascination, others in the area are less welcoming, including some local ranchers and hunters. It is up to Bass, his friend Rick Jimenez, and others who see beauty in the fierceness of wolves to protect the animals, teach them to survive, and convince others of their value.
Review: The Ninemile Wolves is an incredibly engaging and readable book, even for those who are not particularly zealous environmentalists or animal lovers. Bass, though a scientist who knows he is not supposed to betray too much excitement while looking for facts and solutions, allows his passion for wolves to shine through his writing, and it is contagious. Wolf-researcher Mike Jimenez, whom Bass befriends in Montana, is scarcely less in love with the wolves and plays the role of proud guardian and father as he tries to teach the pups, parentless, to live on their own. Readers will be hard-pressed to finish the book less enthralled by this animal.
The book is, in truth, a number of interconnecting stories, that come together to make the story of the Ninemile Wolves. It is Bass’s story, Jimenez’s, the Montanan ranchers’, the hunters’, the government’s—and they merge to determine the future of the once-mighty wolf. Although Bass is never condescending, insulting, or rude, there are clear good guys and clear bad guys in this book. Some of the bad ones are more ignorant than evil; Bass takes the government to task more than once, for example, for making wolves a matter of politics rather than science. They send the wolves to “neutral” land, so voters will not be upset, completely uncaring that the wolves cannot survive in the environment to which they wish to confine them. After witnessing the resulting disaster, they will make the suggestion a second time for a second group of wolves.
Bass also includes a lot of history in his book, offering readers the story of wolves on this continent from the beginning, when they were more numerous and powerful. Their history adds to the beauty of the narrative and begins another building block in Bass’s argument that wolves are worth saving. The Ninemile Wolves, though celebration and science and memoir, is also a call to actions. Bass wants readers to care about wolves and to do something about their caring. He does a marvelous job of convincing readers he is right.
Goodreads: Leonardo da Vinci
Review: Stanley’s biography of one of the Italian Renaissance’s most celebrated men deftly captures the spirit of the age. Stanley covers in limited space the key aspects of da Vinci’s life, touching on his paintings, his inventions, and his personal affairs. She never lingers long on one subject, presumably to keep the attention of the young readers for whom her book is intended. Even so, she manages to give an impressively detailed overview of a unique age in human history.
Though the information provided will surely interest readers, much of the book’s charm lies in Stanley’s illustrations. Her detailed scenes show everyday life in Renaissance Italy, giving readers the impression that they are truly looking at da Vinci and his contemporaries. Small touches such as a cat licking a paw or a skull quietly lying on a shelf add realism to the scenes and encourage readers to spend time lingering over them, and enjoying them. Best of all, Stanley includes miniature depictions of da Vinci’s actual art, so readers can see what all the fuss was about. The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa make appearances, as do sketches of anatomical sketches.
Stanley clearly hopes her book will prove a resource for young readers interested in the Renaissance, and she does her best to facilitate the search for knowledge. The beginning of the book provides a useful phonetic guide to French and Italian names, while the back gives a bibliography complete with resources recommended for younger readers. A preface of sorts as well as a postscript ground da Vinci’s life in history, explaining the importance of his work both in his time and in ours. The entire book seems to celebrate art, intellect, and man’s capacity for greatness.
Stanley’s biography will enchant readers both with the breadth of information provided and its gorgeous illustrations. It demonstrates that learning history can be fun–indeed, a lifelong passion.
Goodreads: Making Friends Among the Taliban: A Peacemaker’s Journey in Afghanistan
Source: Goodreads First Reads
Summary: Larson pays tribute to his friend Dan Terry, the son of American Methodist missionaries, who spent roughly 30 years as an aid worker in Afghanistan.
Review: Readers expecting to learn about the history of the Middle-East or the current conditions of its people will find little of those matters within the pages of Larson’s book. Instead, the author focuses on celebrating Dan Terry’s life and principles through a series of vignettes that highlight the good he accomplished simply by believing in the inherent decency of people. His caring, spontaneity, determination, and joy combined to make him an ideal bridge-builder, a man who could communicate with others from vastly different backgrounds and work with them to achieve a common goal. His story is nothing short of inspiring.
Perhaps most strikingly, Larson’s source material comes largely from the people Terry helped and they give him high praise indeed—that, as a Westerner and a Christian, Terry exemplified many of the positive qualities of Afghans and Muslims. He looked after the less fortunate, acted as man of honor, and, above all, welcomed everyone as a potential friend. He possessed the ability to look past labels and stereotypes to see the people with whom he worked as just that—people. This knowledge, combined with a complete faith in God, enabled Terry to cross into dangerous territory to do the tasks he knew needed to be done. Larson notes that Terry achieved the nickname “crazy” as a result of his extreme fearlessness.
Larson’s book is a heartwarming testimony to the power of the individual to accomplish a lot of good through little means. Terry did not set out to transform an entire country, but simply tried to meet the needs of communities as he saw them arise. His work makes a lasting peace in the Middle-East seem like a real possibility, if only more people took the time to sit down together and drink a cup of tea.
Summary: Joshua Foer recounts his year of adventures training for the U.S. Memory Championship and shares what he learned about the human mind and memory.
Review: Moonwalking with Einstein is a fascinating exploration of the history of memory and the capacity of human talent. It does offer a disclaimer that it is not a self-help book to teach the reader how to capitalize on his memory, but there are just enough tricks mentioned to pique one’s curiosity and perhaps even get one started in learning.
This brief glimpse also prods one to question exactly how all this might be useful in a real-world situation. In the memory championships, contestants memorize stacks of cards, strings of random numbers, and lists of random words. The closest they seem to approach utility is in poetry memorization and face/name memorization (in which all of them seem to struggle). Foer approaches something of an answer when he briefly introduces a teacher who uses memory techniques in his classroom, but little information is imparted as to how effective this, and there is still the matter of whether memorization serves its greatest purpose in the classroom, where students are expected to spit back information on tests. Foer’s true answer comes only at the very end of the book, where he states that although he now has the ability to remember anyone’s phone number, it is a lot faster just to save it in his cell phone.
Still, this revelation does not leave the reader with the sour impression that all of this—the techniques, the competitions, the time it took to read about it all—was a complete waste of time. Rather, the book exudes so much of Foer’s awe at how much the human mind is capable of, that the reader cannot help but be amazed, proud, humbled as well. Foer introduces readers to men and women who work hard to constantly invent new and more efficient ways to memorize things, who break records all the time, and to men who have more natural abilities, savants whose brains are different and help them remember things in unusual ways. The book is a celebration of the human mind and a reminder that we still have much to learn about ourselves.
Moonwalking with Einstein is quirky, but compelling. Its nonfiction status should not deter anyone because it is universal and completely readable. Foer is a journalist, so it has both strong writing and a strong narrative voice. An absorbing work.
Goodreads: The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career
Summary: The story of the first half of Montgomery’s career, first serialized for a women’s magazine in 1917.
Review: The Alpine Path, though autobiographical, is just as charming a story as Montgomery’s novels. She writes in a confidential tone, sharing her secrets, struggles, and dreams with her readers as though they are her friends. Peeping through her words is a little of Anne Shirley, clear in the way Montgomery thinks and enjoys life. She admits that she loved to name places as much as her most-famous character, such as the “Lake of Shining Waters.”
Montgomery reveals that many of events in her books were inspired by real events. A liniment-flavored cake was real, though she was not the one who baked it! She makes sure to specify whether the events made it into Anne, Emily, The Story Girl, or another one of her works, so readers can find them and laugh all over again if they would like. Her own life is just as interesting as her fiction and would have made its own delightful novel!
Also evident in her personality are sparks of Emily, in the determined way she approached and pursued her career as a writer. But she looks beyond her own success and offers encouraging words and advice for other potential writers in describing her failures, joys, and methods. Montgomery is clearly a writer who loved writing for the sake of art. She admits that at one point it had never occurred to her she would be paid for her work; she wanted only to see it in print and have others see it, as well. That spirit, even halfway through her career, seems not to have died, which is probably why all her books, including this one, are so charming and full of life.