Tag Archives: Holocaust

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, color by Greg Salsedo, translated by Alexis Siegel

HiddenPreorder this title now and you can stop reading here … you won’t, you can’t, you will not be disappointed.

Oh, fine. If you’re still with me, let me tell you about Elsa, a little girl who just can’t seem to fall asleep. She tiptoes out of her room and finds her grandmother wide awake. Noticing her sadness, Elsa reassures her grandmother, “You know, when I have a nightmare, I tell Mommy about it and that makes me feel better. You want to tell me?” Hesitant at first, her grandmother begins, “It was a long time ago. Grandma was still a little girl …”

Dounia Cohen, long before she was Elsa’s grandmother, “didn’t care who had won or lost” the war: In spite of France’s defeat by Germany in 1940, “My daddy had come home alive, and that was all the victory I needed.” Returning home unusually early one day, he suggests,”Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs.” Her mother sews the required yellow star onto Dounia’s coat: “Being a sheriff … is more of a boy’s job,” Dounia thinks. “But I don’t mind,” as she looks at her proud reflection in the mirror.

By the next morning, that Star of David has marked young Dounia not with privilege, but made her a target of abuse. “What had I done,” she asks in bewilderment. As a young Jewish child in occupied Paris, Dounia is shunned, isolated, hated without reason. When her parents are violently taken away from their own home, she is sheltered by Mrs. Péricard, the downstairs neighbor. Fearful of the returning police, Mr. Péricard devises a plan to help Dounia escape to safety; in the process, he gravely risks his own safety.

Dounia becomes Simone Pierret, a Catholic child who arrives on Germain’s farm with her “Mama” – Mrs. Péricard who has also given up her Paris life to care for the young girl. The war continues, but Dounia’s new identity – and the unlimited kindness of strangers – keeps her safe until reunion, at least in part, becomes possible …

Like Lola Rein‘s The Hidden Girl and Maryann Macdonald‘s more recent Odette’s SecretsHidden represents not only the 84% of Jewish children in France who escaped the Holocaust – the highest rate of survival for children in Europe – but also the 11,400 French children who were murdered during WWII. While Hidden bears witness to tragic history, the ultimate message is one of hope and redemption, that humanity can and will be effectively used against racism and hatred. Narratively and graphically, the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”). While some nightmares never quite fade, here’s hope that triumphant resolve will have longer staying power.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastEvery so often, I seem to get on a specific reading spree on a topic not exactly of my choosing – that is, the books seem to serendipitously line up on their own. The latest batch of they-chose-me-titles have been set during the final brutal months of World War II on the European continent, with an emphasis on the not-so-well-known experiences of the women.

Yesterday’s post, Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire captured the horrific tragedies of the women-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Today’s Skeletons is a three-part narrative, in which one-third is comprised of the lives (and heinous deaths) of the prisoners of an unnamed (not unlike Ravensbrück) women-only camp. Coming up: The Light in the Ruins – another Chris Bohjalian novel, his latest – highlights the Italian end-of-war story, which also receives pagetime in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (interesting overlap of titles, too, no?).

But back to the triangulated Skeletons … Binding all three narratives together is Anna Emmerich, half of just-turned-18-year-old twins and the only daughter of a Prussian aristocratic family. In German-occupied Poland in January 1945, war is drawing to a frenetic close amidst changing borders and desperate military maneuvers, prompting a mass exodus of surviving civilians in hopes of escaping the final onslaught of Russian soldiers and reaching safety somewhere west with the incoming Allied Forces.

While the Emmerich men have been conscripted by the Nazis, Anna, her mother, and her younger brother are accompanied by a Scottish prisoner-of-war who is also Anna’s lover. Their arduous journey will overlap with that of Uri Singer, a German Jew who has lost everything but his own life, who has thus far survived by literally donning the enemy’s clothing. Paralleling these flights are a group of Jewish women prisoners on a death march away from their camp, the only remaining of thousands who must not be allowed to tell the world the truth of what they have witnessed and endured.

While Bohjalian is the consummate storyteller, his most exceptional talent is his uncertainty – that is, rigid definitions of right and wrong prove impossible, and good and evil could change places minute-to-minute. Humanity cannot be defined by unyielding rules, and yet – as Bohjalian hauntingly shows from both ‘sides’ – inhumanity has an intractable bottom line.

Tidbit: If you choose to go audible, Mark Bramhall once again proves an excellent choice, smoothly embodying not just ages, accents, and both genders, but convincingly distinguishing degrees of desperation and decay. The single drawback to listening is that no one will read you the ending “Acknowledgments” in which Bohjalian describes the novel’s genesis (a close friend’s East Prussian grandmother’s diary!). Lucky for you aural junkies, Bohjalian’s got you covered: his “Backstory” appears on his extensive website.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireConfession: If I didn’t have to read Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up to her breath-wringing adventure, Code Name Verity, I would have kept Rose Under Fire under wraps, hidden somewhere amidst my must-read pile, and just be content with basking in the potential promise of a satisfying ‘gawwww’ sometime in the future. The book’s galley sat unopened for a good six months, until the final version appeared on my doorstep as one of the hundreds of titles submitted this year for a book award for which I’m on the judging committee. Suddenly, I was racing to finish – and really, once you start, you won’t be able to stop anyway – in order to make the deadline for the next batch of near-monthly nominations. As bereft as I am to have to wait (and wait and wait) for Wein’s next, I can at least admit that of the non-picture book-submissions, Rose is the best of the best – I think I’m allowed to share my humble opinion.

As with Verity, Fire returns readers to World War II, introducing a new group of women pilots (airborne girl power!). As a much-appreciated bonus, Fire also continues Maddie and Jamie’s love story, as well as Anna Engel’s complicated wartime choices (you must read Verity to know what all that means). That said, with her name (and what a name, indeed! Wein has a penchant for multi-layered nomenclature) claiming the title, this is inarguably Rose Moyer Justice’s story. An American by birth, Rose is fulfilling her wartime duty across the Pond by helping the Allied Forces ferry fighter planes between Britain and France.

When an aerial delivery goes awry, Rose is captured by the Nazis and eventually sent to Ravensbrück, an all-women Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. Faced with heinous inhumanity, her survival depends on believing in the very best individuals have to offer one another – amidst the pestilence and filth, the starvation and cruelty, the horror and suffering, Rose finds empathy, love, and salvation with a small group of women who become her family.

Even more than Verity, this is not a book for younger readers. We’re reading about Nazis, the Holocaust, concentration camps, genocide and annihilation – to say that terrifying things happen would be sheer understatement. But here’s where Wein triumphs: she has an uncanny ability to deftly blur what might seem to be rigid lines of right and wrong, and miraculously create the tiniest hints of humanity in even some of the worst perpetrators of hate.

“My book is fiction,” she writes in her “Afterword,” “but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses – those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.” Read, learn … and, because inhumanity still prevails in too many places, we must continue to tell and tell and tell …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Shelter and Seconds Away (Mickey Bolitar series)

Shelter.SecondsAway.Mickey Bolitar

If you’re needing a Myron Bolitar fix – Harlen Coben, the first author to win an Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony (three of the top awards for mystery writers), seems to be taking a break from his most persistent protagonist after 10 volumes – then this new series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey is definitely for you. The Mickey Bolitar spin-off is actually targeted for younger readers, but the only details adult readers might find missing are … well, sex and strong language, which have been replaced by the complications of the 21st-century high school caste system.

Mickey (whose given name is actually Myron) is the new-kid-in-town sophomore, relocated to New Jersey under great duress. Having grown up all over the world, his father is now buried in LA, his mother is in rehab, and he’s stuck living with Uncle Myron who is not exactly his favorite person in the world – for various reasons, Myron makes a perfect scapegoat for all of Mickey’s problems. If you’ve read Live Wire (currently, the latest Myron installment at #10), then you know the Bolitar brothers’ complicated history; you’ll also know more than Mickey about his extended family.

Not understanding the local pecking order, Mickey makes quick friends with Ema – a surly, tattooed girl who dresses all in black – and Spoon – the janitor’s son who speaks more in random facts than sentences in sequitur, who immediately announces that he’ll be ‘Donkey’ to Mickey’s ‘Shrek.’ At 6’4″ and 200 pounds, Mickey shares his basketball prowess with his uncle – which provides begrudging opportunity for occasional bonding. For now, Mickey’s keeping his jump shots away from the high school team (‘dumb jock’ barely does justice to some of the more antagonistic seniors), preferring to play pick-up games in grungy Newark away from the more affluent suburb he’s forced to call home.

In Shelter, Mickey’s girlfriend (of two weeks), Ashley, disappears. The search by the dynamic trio of Mickey, Ema, and Spoon, will lead to empty lockers, surveillance tapes, wrong parents, a child kidnapper, and a seedy club called Plan B. Before the last page, three will become four as Rachel, the school’s glam-queen, joins the sleuthing ranks. Of course, the book ends with a mid-action cliffhanger which will make you turn immediately to Seconds Away, which opens with Rachel shot and her estranged mother murdered. While ‘whodunnit’ might get answered, many more questions are left unanswered, setting readers up for the as-yet-unnamed Mickey #3, scheduled to hit shelves later this fall.

In the midst of missing bodies and wayward bullets, Mickey is driven to find out what really happened to his beloved father – whose death he thought he witnessed. But Chapter 1 of Book 1 insists, “‘Your father isn’t dead’” … and somehow the disappearing Bat Lady, a dark suit with dark glasses in a dark limo, a tattooed kidnapper, a Holocaust ‘butcher,’ not to mention unexpected butterflies, are all involved.

Sound convoluted? Definitely. I’m still left unsure how the Holocaust angle will ultimately play out – it felt clumsily tacked on as unnecessary politically-correct-social-statement in Shelter, albeit somewhat better revealed in Seconds. Unbelievable (and obvious) plot twists aside, always-convincing veteran narrator Nick Podehl enhances the action with expert pacing, and in spite of some eye-rolling and head-shaking, you’ll most likely stay with the story stuck in your ears.

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2011 and 2012

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Odette’s Secrets by Maryann Macdonald

Odette's SecretsI’m compelled to start backwards with a number: 84. As children’s writer (more than 25 times over) Maryann Macdonald explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” 84% of French children survived the horrors of World War II; in fact, “more children survived in France than in any other European country.” Macdonald, rightfully asks, “How did this happen?” When she happened on a copy of Doors to Madame Mariethe autobiography of Odette Meyers, one of the French children who managed to survive, at the American Library of Paris, she knew she had a story to tell …

“My name is Odette,” Macdonald’s compelling novel-in-verse for younger readers begins. “I live in Paris, / … My hair is curly. / Mama ties ribbons in it. / Papa reads to me and buys me toys. / I have everything I could wish for, / except a cat.” Odette is just 8 when “[a] funny-looking many with a mustache / shouts a speech. / His name is Hitler” – and war begins.

Life changes quickly, as Jewish homes are raided and destroyed, Odette’s father joins the French Army, and all Jewish people over the age of 6 must prominently display the yellow star on their clothing. “‘What makes us Jews?’ / I ask Mama one night,” for Odette’s family doesn’t go to synagogue, and “Mama and Papa don’t believe in religion.” The best answer she can understand is that “All our relatives are Jews, / so we are Jews.”

While living in constant fear, Odette and her mother’s greatest ally is Madame Marie, the apartment building’s caretaker with her husband, Monsieur Henri. The couple will save mother and daughter from the middle-of-the-night round-ups, protect Odette when her mother must flee, then securely deliver Odette to the messenger who will take her to shelter in the French countryside.

Safety for Odette comes at the cost of her very identity. No one can know that she’s Jewish, and so she must learn to be just like the other village children – by reciting the same prayers, invoking the same saints, going to Mass every Sunday. For a young child who grew up without religion, her new exposure to Catholicism brings her both comfort and conflict. “I know the reason I feel safe in the country. / It’s because here, / I am not a Jew. / In Paris, I am a Jew.”

Hidden in plain sight, Odette survives war, although she can never wholly escape its horrors. She is bullied and attacked by the same children who were her friends, and she falls silent from the relentless fear and trauma. She will not know who – or what – she is, living a lie, in order to live.

Like The Hidden Girls Lola Rein, Odette’s survival depended heavily on the assistance and protection of non-Jews; unlike Lola who was forced into hiding – much of the time buried in a dark hole – only Odette’s identity was shrouded while she lived openly, attempting to be just like any other village child. Only when the war finally ends can Odette reclaim her true self: “Secrets stand in my way. / They stop me from knowing who I am. / I am a Jew. / I’m sure of it. / And I will always be one.”

Truly, the courage of children knows no bounds.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Message to Adolf (Part 2) by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Message to Adolf 2Official word of warning: this is NOT your kiddies’ manga. Both in subject matter and graphics, Message is definitely for mature audiences. So if you have younger ones in the house, be careful not to leave the book lying around. The “godfather of manga” has plenty of other titles for the young ‘uns … his iconic Astro Boy, in spite of darker undertones parents might recognize, is a great place for the kiddies to get to know manga-godpapa.

But back to Adolf: not to keep telling you what to do – but I definitely need to here … make sure you read Part 1 of this two-volume epic work before venturing forth. To start in the middle is not recommended: if nothing else, check out the orange cover for Part 1, then compare it to this pink cover here: der Führer is degenerating before your eyes, and you’re going to need to know why before you open Part 2.

Der Führer – who we clearly know to be evil incarnate – is only one of the three Adolfs in the midst of losing his humanity. Part 2 begins with Adolf Kaufmann still able to agonize over his murderous spree: “In a few years, I’ll probably be like the SS or Gestapo, able to kill Jews without batting an eye … no, with a smirk on my face!” he writes in a letter marred by tears and sweat that he will never be able to send to his Japanese mother. Holding on to what conscience he has left – and smitten for the first time in his life – he risks his own safety to send a young Jewish girl, Elisa, to Kobe, Japan, in the care of his childhood (Jewish) best friend, Adolf Kamil.

Kaufmann is handpicked by the Führer himself to be his “Apprentice Secretary.” He rises rapidly through the ranks of the SD [the Nazi intelligence agency, Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers]; his blind loyalty gives him chilling, murderous efficiency. Meanwhile, in Japan, Kamil and his mother welcome Elisa, who becomes an integral part of their shrunken family. In spite of grave danger, Kamil and Ms. Ogi keep working to disperse the secret documents that could possibly destroy Hitler, out to the rest of the world.

Even after Hitler falls (you won’t find the the version the school books taught you here), Kaufmann and Kamil’s battles continue, moving through Europe, Japan, and finally to the Middle East. Even the end of a world war can’t sever their gruesome bond. Lies, betrayal, vengeance, rape, suicide, murder, all drive up the body count – and through it all, the indestructible Sohei Toge continues to record the tragedy: “This is the story of three men named Adolf,” the epics ends – just as it began, “They each followed a different course in their lives, but they were bound together by one thread of destiny. Now that the last Adolf lies dead, I present this tale to our descendants.”

And so the story starts again, rising from the ashes of a faraway graveyard. Dare we hope that somehow, history will not repeat itself again … and again and again …?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Having somehow stumbled randomly on Elizabeth Wein‘s very recent “meta-review” on reviewing (complete with crossed-out phrases about “tasteless morons“), I’ll try to not break her seven “observations” here. Just allow me a moment to digress (and comment): 1. I wasn’t aware of any Verity hype, although surely such a smart, pulse-racing, breath-wringing adventure deserves to be hyped to the heavens; 2. Of course, I finished – then wished for more; 3. I didn’t experience a single microsecond of boredom; 4. I’d be thrilled to pieces to have Wein turn up on this blog (always appreciate author visits), and promise to be on my best behavior if our paths ever cross in livetime; 5. I don’t need to fact-check a single phrase because I completely believed every repetition of “I have told the truth”; 6. I won’t apologize for nothing!; and 7. Since I don’t read reviews, the biggest shocker I can attest to appears on p. 285 (don’t you dare peek ahead!) which made me sputter and wince, then left me bereft.

In Wein’s own words: “There you go, my [own] meta-review.”

Verity is a rarity indeed. Two young women, so different in background (one the English grandchild of Jewish immigrants who’s gifted with machines; the other a royally descended, titled Lady who grew up in a Scottish castle with a posh Swiss education and a term at Oxford), are brought together by war … and become the very best of friends. One is a pilot, the other her passenger. During an unauthorized flight into France, one becomes the prisoner of the Gestapo, the other works desperately to find her. One writes her story, Scheherazade-style, on any paper she’s allowed – from fancy hotel stationery to a Jewish doctor’s prescription sheets to discarded recipe cards to sheet music in which “the flute parts are all blank” – scribbling to save her life. The other hopes to attempt an impossible rescue. Each friend shares half the story; together, they undoubtedly “are a sensational team.”

A word of warning: if, like me, you choose to stick this heartbeat-raising book in your ears, I urgently recommend you also have the on-the-page version readily available. As convincing as the readers Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell are, the book contains essential textual details that just cannot be translated onto a recording: turn to page 62 to see an example.

While this might be a bit of a spoiler (you’ve been warned!), I must commend Wein’s cleverly ironic choice of certain names: the angel with a Yank accent, the officer whose name echoes a major Berlin thoroughfare on which sits the city’s iconic Brandenberger Gate haunted by eerie photos of Nazi soldiers during the 1933 announcement of Hitler as the new Chancellor, the faraway daughter who shares the name of a tragic heroine whose life was operatically staged by the anti-Semitic, Hitler-endorsed Richard Wagner.

A book with so many layers (did I mention meta?) needs to be read first for the spectacular story that it is, then combed through at least again for the literary accomplishments it achieves. Verity is veritably WOW.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

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Message to Adolf (Part 1) by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Message to Adolf 1Considered the “godfather of manga,” Osamu Tezuka is internationally renowned for his iconic Astro Boy. Introduced in Japan in 1951 as Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom), Tezuka’s signature creation remains an international phenomenon across multiple platforms, rising off the page and landing in television, films, video games, and every product that could possibly be sold with an adorable little android decoration; in fact, the animated serial incarnation of Astro Boy is regarded as the progenitor of the pop culture genre known as anime. In spite of the charming little robot’s legions of young devotees, Tezuka’s initial creative impetus was clearly a personal response to the death and destruction associated with Nagasaki and Hiroshima which ended World War II just six years before: Tezuka baptized his robot Tetsuwan Atom – think atom bomb – for obvious reasons.

While that darkness in Astro Boy was mostly glossed over with irrepressible cuteness, Message to Adolf – which debuted in Japan in the 1980s, not long before Tezuka’s death in 1989 – has no such sugar-coating. Be warned: Message is quite possibly Tezuka’s most violent, disturbing work, and surely not meant for younger readers.

“This is the story of three men named Adolf,” the manga begins. “Now that the last of the Adolfs lies here dead, I would like to relate their tale for future generations,” the narrator offers. That narrator, Sohei Toge, is a Japanese journalist who promises to avenge his younger brother after he’s murdered in Berlin, Germany, for stumbling upon a secret so shocking it could destroy Hitler and the Nazi party. Toge willingly risks everything he has – his career, his relationships, his freedom, even his humanity – to protect his brother’s secret and seek justice.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, two younger Adolfs are coming of age in the mid-1930s, just as Hitler’s power matures. Adolf Kaufmann, in spite of a Japanese mother, is the perfect Aryan prototype; his father is a powerful German consulate official who’s been stationed in Kobe, Japan for 15 years, whose Nazi ties have turned him into a lying, cheating murderer. Adolf Kamil, who also lives in Kobe with his Jewish parents who run a bakery, whose family managed to escape Germany just in time, is Kaufmann’s best friend, but the two boys are not allowed to play together because of their vastly different backgrounds. Kaufmann is sent to Germany against his wishes to be trained as a proper Nazi. Kamil discovers the same secret that killed Toge’s brother. Meanwhile, Toge will do anything to find his brother’s papers which contain the evidence that could change history …

previous English translation in five volumes appeared in 1995 from VIZ Media and is out of print (although Amazon has both new and used copies), but this new Vertical, Inc. edition is apparently much closer to Tezuka’s original. “Dear Readers,” an endnote explains, “Social situations have changed a lot since Osamu Tezuka’s works were written and some expressions incorporated in the works, which were accepted at the time, may seem awkward today. However, what underlies his work is his strong love of humanity … Now as we distribute his works, it is our intention to present the original materials faithfully, as we have done with his many translated books.”

At 650 pages, this is still just half the story [part 2 hits shelves in November]. At 650 pages, it’s also such an action-packed, never-pausing adventure, you’ll probably end up reading it in one sitting. Even as we know better, the hopeful thought that history might have somehow been changed keeps the pages turning swiftly; that lure of ‘what-if’ proves irresistible.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

A full decade has passed since Yann Martel won the coveted Booker Prize for his Life of Pi. I confess I had to force myself to finish that book when it first appeared; I admit to being befuddled to learn of its Booker win and the international success it proved to be.

That said, although I’m not usually a fan of film-to-celluloid, I’m anxiously awaiting the stupendous Ang Lee’s rendition of Pi, currently scheduled to hit screens in late November. The day the trailer was released (and oh how gorgeously enticing it is!), I happened to arbitrarily start Martel’s latest, Beatrice and Virgil, because it was loaded on my iPod and read by Mark Bramhall who so enjoyably brought Julia Glass’ The Widower’s Tale to my appreciative ears.

Beatrice and Virgil began well with one of the most simple and powerful passages I’ve read in a while about the understanding of art: “‘Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.’” But then … well, let’s just say that was probably the book’s highlight.

Henry, the book’s protagonist, is not unlike Martel. Henry, too, is famous for his second novel, which has won multiple prizes, and is about to be turned into a Hollywood film (Martel told the Canadian press last week that he’s “anxious” to see the finished film of Pi, in which he even has a cameo). Henry has finished his next effort– a “flip book” about the Holocaust, half novel, half essay. His disappointment over the book’s rejection even before it’s published leads him to stop writing.

He moves with his wife to “one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself” (the city is never identified), gets a job at a chocolatería, acts with a local theater troupe, and manages to stay away from all things literary until a thick envelope arrives containing a short story by Gustave Flaubert, “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” in which “every instance of animal massacre” had been brightly highlighted. In addition, fragments of a play-in-progress, starring a donkey named Beatrice and her monkey companion Virgil, are also included.

The playwright also calls himself “Henry,” and gives an address not too far away. Henry-the-playwright turns out to be a taxidermist, and Beatrice and Virgil two stuffed animals in his mysterious shop; he’s asking for Henry-the-famous-author’s help in finishing his script. And so Henry, Henry, Beatrice, and Virgil’s unlikely relationship begins …

Martel reportedly sold this animal allegory for $3 million, even after he was summoned to a London restaurant and told his essay/novel “flip book” was not publishable (sound familiar?). The overlaps with Martel’s protagonist are so many as to become intrusive with countless, obvious wink-wink-nod-nod self-references. Perhaps the animals elicit some amount of sympathy given their abuse at human hands (yes, we are the most brutal, evil characters of all), but by book’s end, the repetitive, thinly disguised MESSAGE ABOUT THE MAN-MADE HORRORS OF THE HOLOCAUST are broadcast so blatantly as to become an eye-rolling din, guilt-inducing regret and all.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman, with an epilogue by Joyce Brabner

I don’t know if this is linguistically correct, but I’m going with it: my recent discovery of indie comic-book legend Harvey Pekar is posthumous – that is, Pekar passed away two years ago (although I’m still kicking), and I’m just reading his work for the first time (I know many of you are rolling your eyes, thinking, ‘what took you so long?’). While Pekar might have gone to the other side, new graphic works with his name continue to hit shelves; according to a 2010 New York Times article aptly titled, “The Unfinished Tale of an Unlikely Hero,” at least four titles, including this one, are scheduled to debut or have recently debuted from beyond the grave.

Best known for his long-running autobiographical series American Splendor (which became a film starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in 2003), Pekar was just finishing Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me with artist collaborator JT Waldman when he died in July 2010. The pair was “working on a book about the history of Israel,” into which Pekar wove in his own experiences of “why my attitude about the state of Israel changed.”

The child of Jewish immigrants who settled in Cleveland, Ohio (which, coincidentally, was also home to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, whose parents, too, were Jewish immigrants), both Pekar’s parents were staunch Zionists. “I’d like to share how I lost faith in Israel after I … moved away from my immigrant Jewish parents,” Pekar explains on the book’s the second page. “I hope this book will help change some minds, but I dunno. How can you change the minds of people who think they’ve made a deal with God that goes back thousands of years?”

Still, Pekar is willing to try. His historical overview begins with Abraham, and arrives centuries later with, “The Arabs have a legitimate beef. [Israel's founder David] Ben-Gurion admitted it. [Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe] Dayan admitted it.” With Waldman by his side, Pekar’s personal tour moves from “maybe the biggest used bookstore in the world,” to an Italian deli (when Waldman nixes Pekar’s first suggestion of a cheap deal at Burger King for something more local, assuring Pekar that their editor will pick up the tab), then to the Lee Road branch of the Cleveland Public Library system. From history to personal story, Pekar explains, rants, guides, insists, directs … until he’s sitting alone with his undecipherable thoughts on the final page. Whether his decades-long trajectory proves convincing is, of course, up to each reader.

While the book poignantly ends in what seems to be mid-thought, Pekar’s wife (who co-authored Our Cancer Year with Pekar and Frank Stack) adds a bittersweet epilogue that concludes with Pekar’s funeral, which “was, as he was, proudly Jewish, but not nationalist.” Waldman’s art – which is further enhanced by not following a traditional panel-by-panel layout; the car journey, for example, cleverly meanders like a windy road – is certainly a stunning tribute to the late Pekar. While Pekar might be talking story in an afterlife universe with Abraham, his widow and collaborators continue to spread his word in this: “celebrating the work Harvey did: comics about real life.”

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Jewish