Susan’s Book Talk: 2008 Roundup (Part one)


I’ve been putting off doing my annual reading roundup for a couple of reasons. One is that I’ve been telling you guys about the spectacular stuff as I’ve closed the back cover of each and every one. One is that I’m sad I only read 87 books this year (down from last year’s 97, let alone my high of 147 in 2006 and 2005, each.

A lot of that is due to EntreCard, which drives my traffic so nicely and has made me new friends. So… the piles of books here in my office continue to stagnate, sad to say.

My final reason for my heel-dragging is simple: since my last roundup in October (read it here), not only have I not fallen in love with anything, I read a book that shook me a little bit deeper than to my foundation. That’s probably why I was lukewarm about such potentially great reads as Carrie Lofty’s What a Scoundrel Wants and Jessica Inclan’s Intimate Beings.

I’ve never had a book shake me up like this. Ever.

I don’t like to say negative things about books I don’t finish — and of the 87 on my list this year, I didn’t finish 21 of them, which is WAY too high a percentage — but this time, I’m going to make an exception. Maybe you’ll have some insight that I’m lacking.

Let me start off by saying that I didn’t choose to read this book. I didn’t want to read this book, but my book club insisted. (Last month was only the second time in our eight-year history in which we cancelled the meeting to discuss the book because none of us could talk about it.) I tried overruling them, but they’re older than me and even though I’m the leader, every now and then, they pull rank.

I doubt they’ll do it for awhile. As I said, I was against it. (If you’ve followed the past adventures of my book club, I try to steer away from Holocaust lit — but hey, this was a memoir. That’s not literature!)

The book in question was The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn. It’s a memoir by an award-winning journalist that chronicles his quest to find out what happened to six members of his family during the Holocaust. A simple, “They died,” isn’t enough for Mendelsohn, and that’s fine.

The story had great potential.

The first problem I had was the writing style. I swear, on average, sentence length was 50 words. Ideas were repeated until you became numb — or outraged at how many times you had to revisit the same fact, character trait, detail, what have you. It held the pacing of the story up.

But I could have dealt with that. I can skim when I have to.

No. What rattled me so deeply — in fact, it’s hard to even write about it and revisit the emotions the book keyed into — was the brutality. Holy shit.

I mean, look. I’m Jewish. I grew up with the Holocaust hanging over my head. Men did unspeakable things to their fellow men — and women and children. I’ve known this my whole life. I’ve met survivors; I married into a family with a survivor. You can’t be Jewish and not know the story of the Holocaust.

After reading the details that I’d been sheltered from throughout my life until this point, I don’t know if I can look at the Tour Manager’s Grandmother without wanting to throw up.

That’s the way I’ve reacted to The Lost. I want to vomit. Just thinking about the book makes my gut churn, my bowels threaten to loosen. This book brought me to my knees. I can see the horror these people faced all too clearly. I have nightmares even now, weeks later. Sometimes, I wonder if maybe I was there in a past life and what I’m feeling now is a flashback to that.

But c’mon… past lives? Flashbacks? For real?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I can’t face Holocaust literature right now. Two weeks ago, I started to read the beautifully written The Book of Blam. Someone at BookCrossing had requested it as part of a trade, and heck, I’d managed to read the beautiful (but bizarre) A Blessing on the Moon without being too badly bothered. I wasn’t so lucky with The Book of Blam; I gave up about 75 pages into a 250-page book and mailed it on its way.

What I do know is that when I read brutality in fiction, it generally doesn’t bother me much. The Kite Runner‘s scene with the Taliban bothered me; it rang of truth. And there was this one fantasy book that opened with a very detailed account of a disembowling that made me put the book down. In that book, the violence had been gratuitous. Stupid, even (which was my reaction to both American Psycho and Hannibal). It’s fiction, a part of me is always reminding my innocent core. It’s not real. Someone made it up.

But The Lost… it’s the story of what happened. It’s real, boys and girls. People actually treated other people this way. Some survived to document it.

And I close my eyes and can conjure the horror of a rabbi being made to dance naked on a table in front of a town’s population of Jews, blood streaming from his recently abused eye sockets while his congregation cowers, afraid of what they’ll have to endure next…

I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.

And forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I’ve got to:

Damn you, Daniel Mendelsohn. I liked being innocent of these details. You stole that from me.



  1. Jessica Inclan

    January 2, 2009 9:08 pm

    Hi, Susan.

    Well, that book scares me, and I’ve read a great deal about the Holocaust. Frankly, the topic is more important than anything in Intaimte Beings, though I do actually grapple with intolerance and xenophobia in the story (along with the romance). But no where near what you reported, and what he reported was real.

    A google alert led me to your blog, and thanks for telling us about this important, though scary and true book.


    Jessica Inclan

  2. Darlene

    January 2, 2009 9:43 pm

    Hey Susan, sorry I’m late but I really wanted to say I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and all the best to you in 2009. I’m grateful to have met you this year.

  3. Marci

    January 2, 2009 10:37 pm

    I appreciate your post about this book. Mark (aka my Jewish husband) read it and although he didn’t say much to me, I think he probably had a similar reaction when he finished. This book is sitting on my TBR shelf – I can’t quite bring myself to get past the first few pages. I think the fact that it’s real, not fiction, has me hesitant. Couple that with your post today and I’m even more hesitant.

  4. Susan

    January 2, 2009 10:41 pm

    I don’t blame you guys for being hesitant. If I’d known it was this rough, I’d have put my foot down with the book club and refused to touch it. Heck, even writing this post was hard. And man, did it leave me in a crabby mood.

    But it needed to be done, I think. Something bigger than me pulled this post out of me. Given that something bigger than me brought me back to The Tour Manager, I listen to that Something Bigger.


    January 2, 2009 11:50 pm

    There are those moments in life when we see clearly how cruel humans or just life itself can be. Such moments change our worldview and it’s a painful change. It’s normal to wish to have continued in our state of blissful ignorance.

    While we can’t change the past, we do have the power to change now and the future, even if it’s just in our own backyard. We can say, “This is why God/Life/The Universe calls upon me to be a partner for good in this screwed up place we call home.”

    Hugs, and remember to find something transcendent to take with you as you continue your life journey. You’re here and that counts for something.

  6. Thomma Lyn

    January 3, 2009 12:50 am

    I recall seeing the movie Sophie’s Choice as a child. I couldn’t sleep afterward. I cried all night. I also recall seeing the Schindler’s List as a young woman. Again, I couldn’t sleep. I sobbed all night. I just couldn’t stop.

    Bunnygirl said it so well and so wisely that I’ll just add more (((((((((hugs))))))))), my dear friend.

  7. Theresa

    January 3, 2009 1:52 am

    I haven’t read the book you’re talking about, and won’t now that I’ve read what you said about it. But, I’ve read others about the Holocaust and seen the movies, and I still struggle to understand even a modicum of the rationale behind Hitler’s thinking. It’s best I don’t try, I suppose. It is a horrific time in humanity’s history.

    But, there is one book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” written by Victor Frankl, a survivor. The first half of the book is about his experiences in one of the death camps, the second half is his formulation of his existential theory based on his experiences. It’s not as ugly as what you described, nor is it as hopeful as you could wish it would be, but Frankl does manage to highlight the very deep well of human strength. Perhaps reading this book would undo some of the harm of the book you did read.

  8. Wylie

    January 3, 2009 12:57 pm

    I purposely avoid books and movies like this because I just can’t face man’s inhumanity. I know enough to loose sleep over.
    When I was a kid I watched the mini-series Roots and parts of it haunt me to this day.
    Also as a child, I stumbled across a Holocaust documentary and there is one particular image of an emaciated prisoner that still flashes in my mind’s eye so clearly, it’s like he’s standing in front of me.
    I know these horrors were real — ARE real in some countries, STILL!! – but like you, I’ve got this innocent core that needs to remain intact or I’ll just crumble.

  9. Wylie

    January 3, 2009 12:57 pm

    LOSE sleep. Not loose sleep *oops*

  10. Rene

    January 3, 2009 1:34 pm

    I understand your horror and I think I would have reservations about reading this book. However, it is so important that books like this are written. It is so important that people understand the depths of evil committed against a nation of people simply because of their ethnicity. The horror of the Holocaust needs to always be remembered. Especially now.

  11. openchannel

    January 3, 2009 7:41 pm

    Hey, congrats on the new look! Very slick. I’m moving soon, too. Change is good!

    Happy New Year!


  12. Anne

    January 3, 2009 8:11 pm

    I have a real problem with reading books or watching movies that involve cruelty, especially non-fiction. I don’t want to be reminded of what humans are capable of doing to humans or other living creatures.

  13. Jennifer

    January 4, 2009 10:54 pm

    As someone who can’t even read fictional brutality and doesn’t watch all kinds of movies because of violence (I just don’t have the stomach for it), reading about the real thing, about the sickness that humans are capable of, is too much.

    I agree, that we should know about it, be witnesses, but there is something about ripping that safety net away, taking away an ignorance of some of the absolute horrors of the Holocaust and other atrocities, that makes it hard to be anything but a misanthropic cynic.

  14. Susiej

    January 4, 2009 10:55 pm

    Ok, Susan, you are reminding me of myself here. The older I get, and the more I write, and the more I read, the pickier I am with my books. I demand more; and as a result I am not always quite as satisfied as I would have been ten years ago.

    I will admit too, that I do avoid these stories. But I did hear a famous, legend about a man in a camp who got tears of joy in his eyes when he listened to a Nazi terrorize everyone. His joy was from the fact that he could not hold such hatred in his heart; and that made him joyful – -to not be a “bad” guy.

  15. spyscribbler

    January 5, 2009 1:12 pm

    Wow. Okay, now I can’t decide whether or not I want to read that book. You know, I remember that Spielberg film, with the realistic war? I saw it in the theater, and I was literally traumatized. I walked in a daze for three days.

    I don’t know. I’m glad I saw that, sort of, now that time has faded the memory to an acceptable level. I won’t ever see it again. I think I’d like to read this, but I have to find the right time, you know?

  16. Susan

    January 5, 2009 1:16 pm

    I’ll tell ya, Spy. I adored Schindler’s, but it wasn’t graphic. Not compared to this. (The movie also gave a new meaning to saying Kaddish at Friday Night services, I’ll tell you that!)

  17. Gel

    January 5, 2009 11:08 pm

    Hmmm- I, too, an Jewish and have read many books about the Holocaust, fiction and nonfiction. This one doesn’t ring a bell, but now you’ve aroused my curiosity. I appreciate your comments/critique here and wonder what I’ll think once I’ve read it or whether I’ll also be turned off by the writing style. Time will tell.

  18. Gel

    January 5, 2009 11:15 pm

    I do need to add that the “brutality” that bothered you, needs to be told, must be brought out into the open into the real world, because unspeakable horrific acts DID happen. Think of those who dare say the Holocaust never happened.

    Unlike you, I was not sheltered and grew up knowing of these, so I’m sorry you were shocked, but it is a life fact should make anyone nauseous, especially for a Jewish person.

    Those horrific, twisted, traumatic, inhumane acts show Hitler’s demented regime and more. “NEVER AGAIN”

  19. Anna

    January 14, 2009 3:22 pm

    Wow. And you’ve passed it on to me. I grew up hearing horror stories from my grandmother, a German whose family refused to follow Hitler and ended up spending time in a camp and losing an infant to starvation there. My great-grandfather was supposedly taken away by the Gestapo and never seen again. I’m sure this one will be hard to read, but I find all Holocaust stories, fiction and non-fiction, hard to read.

  20. Susan

    January 14, 2009 6:24 pm

    Well, this is why I said I wouldn’t be offended if you recycled it!

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