Some recent reads to recap, covering a French WWII-era concentration camp, a memoir of an Albanian girlhood, and travels in icy Greenland. Let’s go!
In the Shadows of Paris: The Nazi Concentration Camp that Dimmed the City of Light is author and journalist Anne Sinclair’s research in Compiègne-Royallieu, the Nazi transit camp where her Jewish grandfather, Léonce Schwartz, was imprisoned after a roundup of Jewish men in the city in 1941.
Picking this up I thought it was about Drancy, the notorious transit camp that most Parisian prisoners passed through en route to Auschwitz. I’d never even heard there was another one.
Sinclair felt guilt about her late interest in her grandfather’s life and experiences and did this research in an attempt for atonement.
I would simply like to pay homage to the men I did not know who suffered alongside my grandfather during their three months tighter, and to their loved ones — and perhaps, in this war, to lessen my guilt over not having attempted to unravel the threads of this story sooner.
This is an interesting premise, and especially for a corner of history I knew little about, having confused it with the larger camp. But Sinclair doesn’t have many records directly from her grandfather, aside from a drawing a fellow prisoner made of him in a hospital bed, an image which speaks volumes. Information about what the humiliating roundup and imprisonment entailed are drawn from others’ accounts, including Serge Klarsfeld’s.
Although the translation seemed smooth, I was underwhelmed by this. There’s little emotion despite the author’s proximity to this history, and the descriptions felt so removed. It does have its moments, and I think Sinclair succeeded in conveying the desperation and humiliation prisoners felt in a roundup, and thus it makes painfully clear how the Nazi apparatus worked to dehumanize the Jewish population.
Other than that I found it a bin thin overall, but I also liked learning something about this camp I’d never heard of and small explorations of some of the exhibits at the Shoah memorial at Paris. – translated from the French by Sandra Smith, November 16th 2021 by Kales Press (used or new @ SecondSale.com)
Lea Ypi’s Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History functions as a kind of memoir in connected stories: It’s not really a traditional narrative memoir but it’s also not quite essays. This loose format really worked for me, and I thought Ypi did a great job of tying together important points — both on a personal and broader level — from earlier stories to later ones.
She has that special gift of being able to write from a child’s perspective as an adult, and weaves together memories and specific scenes using the benefit of hindsight and with a bent towards demonstrating what these incidents meant in the context of Albanian life at the time.
I did feel some remove on the author’s part from some of the more emotionally affecting events that I would’ve expected more insight into. Still, the perspectives into a country and era that haven’t gotten a lot of attention on the world stage is so valuable and I found the writing engaging and lovely.
I didn’t think that it provided quite as much of a wider historical background as necessary, which I think might hamper understanding if you’re lacking it, but having read Mud Sweeter Than Honey this didn’t bother me. These two books would make an excellent read-together. (used or new @ SecondSale.com) published January 18 by W. W. Norton. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland is a book that I so expected to love, I bought it without reading a library copy first. A mistake.
I’m so sad that I couldn’t love this account of Ehrlich’s visits to Greenland over seven years. I was so blown away by The Solace of Open Spaces – her poetic writing and that singular ability to pull the strangest but most moving thoughts out of weird abstract musings that suddenly make sense and express something you’ve wished you could put into words. Her other work hasn’t had the same magical effect on me but I keep trying.
I thought this one might be more appealing but it was my least favorite. I read the first half and then spent two hours skimming the second half. I just couldn’t anymore. And yet somehow even in skimming I seemed to pick out all the horrible things I didn’t want to read anymore – dogs dying, dogs being shot (why? Just because they ran off apparently; I’m not even a dog person and this was bumming me out), dogs killing polar bear cubs, lots of killing and skinning seals, people cannibalizing their children during bad seasons or travels gone awry, abused children – the misery in this thing never ends.
And I know that’s how life is in economies like this that rely on hunting and harsh climates, and life can be brutal out of necessity, but it was too much of it to enjoy reading by any stretch. A therapist I had once talked about the things we watch or read because sometimes we need to feel soft inside – I think she referenced a baking show. So this is definitely the opposite of that.
And when it’s not brutal sometimes it’s just boring. I lost all interest in the 1917 Rasmussen expedition, for example, chapters of which are interspersed with Ehrlich’s narrative. I see what this place meant to her and why, but I didn’t want to be along for this ride.
I did like some of the shaman stories and lore and creepy old stories she recounts. (“And when the long Darkness spreads itself over the country, many hidden things are revealed, and men’s thoughts travel along devious paths.”)
On the bright side: there were a few lovely, give-me-chills lines that only Gretel Ehrlich is capable of:
“For seven years I used the island as a looking glass: part window, part mirror.”
“Time proceeds without measurement; there is no original sin, only a confluence of waters mixing, separating, and mixing again […] Perhaps it is possible to remember where we have not yet been.”
“That would take a lifetime and I had already used up most of the one life I had.”
“Once I had everything. Now it’s lost. Then the losing of it was lost.”
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