Sarah’s Key – by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)

Sarah's Key

There have been hundreds of books written about World War II, some being true stories, and others being fictional but based around actual events during the war. “Sarah’s Key” is fiction, although the setting is a Paris police round-up in July of 1942.

The Starzynski family is living in Paris when the local French police, under orders from the Germans, round up all the Jews they can find – men, women and children. When the police bang on their door, 10-year-old Sarah locks her little brother Michael in a cupboard, thinking they will merely be questioned at the police station and they will be able to come back for him later. Instead, Sarah and her parents are herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver stadium, along with 28,000 other Jews. They are held there for five days, then stuffed onto a train, and sent to the Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp. Sarah is able to escape from the camp before everyone there is transferred to Auschwitz, but is too late to save her brother’s life.

The story switches back and forth from Sarah’s story to the present-day story of Julia, an American journalist in Paris. Julia is given the assignment of researching the Vel’ d’Hiv detainment of Jews by French police, as the 60th anniversary of the event approaches. Strangely, many Parisians claim to have no memory of this event in their city’s history. It has been purposely forgotten, buried under the rug as several generations have passed by. The more Sarah investigates, the more obsessed she becomes. Eventually it affects her life and her marriage.

This was a difficult book to read. The character of Sarah was fictional, but the arrests, the separating of the parents from the children, and the premeditated murder of 28,000 innocent people was real. I asked myself, how could human beings who are capable of great love participate in such hate and evil? I can fathom the occasional psychopathic killer doing something so sick, but how did so many people participate in these atrocities? And not just one time, but over and over for years. It sickened me to think of people choosing to torture, starve and kill their fellow man. It is also sickening to think about how the Holocaust is slowly being covered over. Despite the evidence of interviews with people that lived through it, video footage, photography, and written testimony, there are still people who believe it never happened, or that reports were exaggerated. Denying the truth can only lead people to do the same evil things over and over.

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A Year In Provence – by Peter Mayle (1989)

A Year In Provence

 

Sometimes you just want a book that makes you laugh, one that lifts you far away from the drab winter days. This is such a book. Peter Mayle and his wife were a well-to-do British couple who vacationed in southern France, and dreamed of living there someday. One year they packed up their dogs, and bought a fixer-up house in Provence, a rural French community. They decided to totally re-do the house, and discovered that the local craftsmen often had a different idea of time and deadlines than the British. Their attempts to repair walls and ceilings, install central air conditioning, and re-model the kitchen were hilarious!

I listened to the story on CDs during my commute to work. Certain portions of the book had me laughing so hard in the car that my sides hurt. The author himself read the book. Mr. Mayle read with such animation that I think he was reliving the experience as he spoke. His British accent, along with frequent interludes into the French language, made the sound a delight to the ears. Borrow a copy of the book or audiobook from your library, and enjoy this departure from the ordinary life!

All The Light We Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr (2014)

All The Light We Cannot See

I waited a long time to get a copy of this novel at my local library. It seemed that everyone and his brother was trying to read it. After all, it had been on the New York Times best-sellers list for over a year, and had won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Fiction.

The story spans from 1934 to 1974, following the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure from childhood to adulthood. Marie-Laure is the only child of a widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She becomes blind at a young age, and her father builds her a model of their French village so that she can “see” it with her fingers. She learns to maneuver around town because she has memorized everything from the model.

Werner is a poor German boy being raised, along with his sister, in a charity house. He has a brilliant mind, and teaches himself all about radio technology. At 16 he is forced to join the Hitler Youth. When his superiors find out how great he is at understanding and repairing radios, they put him in a special unit that seeks out and confiscates them. It is supposed to be an honor to be in this special division, but he and his bunk-mate Frederick dislike the increasing brutality they see. There seems to be no way to get out; they are reluctant participants in a war neither one of them wants to be in.

The book oscillates back and forth from Marie-Laure to Werner, and back again. Each one has a part to play in the war, but they are on opposite sides. They are enemies, yet when they finally meet (more than 400 pages into the book) they are not enemies.

“All The Light We Cannot See” is a well-written story with a minimal amount of wartime horror spelled out. Still, it conveys the fear and uncertainty and darkness that most people felt during that time in history. Even those who survived physically carried the emotional scars the rest of their lives.

 
Excerpt #1:

(Part of a conversation when Werner and Frederick are on leave from training camp)

“Do you ever wish,” whispers Werner, “that you didn’t have to go back?”

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

 
Excerpt #2:

It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings – always they seem to her some vestige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.