Tag Archives: jews

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain Title: The Gustav Sonata
Author: Rose Tremain
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, Random House UK
ISBN: 978-1784740047
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I don’t know how to begin this review. I will try. I will try to express what I feel – because what I feel about this book cannot really be put in words. “The Gustav Sonata” is one of those books that you keep coming back to after you have finished reading it. Not entirely, but in bits and pieces – to comprehend not the story but just to know that life works mysteriously sometimes and you cannot do much about it but live it for what it is.

I picked up this book on a whim. It was just one of those days when I entered Wayword and Wise and knew that I had to pick this one up. It was there – begging for my attention. When a book does that, you know you will love it, no matter what.

The book is set in a small town in Switzerland. World War II has ended but the effects remain, though not as much in this town. Gustav Perle grows up in this town and is certain of only one thing: He loves his mother who on the other hand is cool and distant with her son, never loving him, never showing him how she feels. Gustav’s only friend is the music prodigy Anton whom he adores. Anton just takes Gustav for granted since kids and well into adulthood. The story starts when they are children in 1947 and ends in 2002 when they are sixty, covering a gamut of explorations, emotions and what it means to be human.

The book is not only about their friendship, or about Gustav’s dead father or just the past and how it impacts the present and the future, but also about coming to terms with life and living it in its full glory or not. It is about a country that chose to be neutral and the impact that had on its citizens.

“The Gustav Sonata” is a big book with a big heart. It is delicate, sensible and asks the bigger questions of loyalty, betrayal, heartbreak and self-mastery in a way that no other book I’ve read has. It struck a chord in me in so many places. There were times I could not stop highlighting in the book – all I can say is that you must not let this year go by without reading this book. It will for sure change you in more than one way.

El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin

El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin Title: El Iluminado
Author: Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin
Publisher: Basic Books
ISBN: 9780465032570
Genre: Graphic novel
Pages: 208
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

“El Iluminado” reads like a Dan Brown thriller, which is good in many ways, because after all who doesn’t enjoy a good thriller, right? At the same time it is in graphic format – so that’s a double whammy right there for you.

This is the kind of book which is thought of quite rarely and now that it is out there, I recommend it to all and sundry.

What is the plot?

A man by the name of Rolando Perez falls to his death from a cliff outside Santa Fe, Mexico and this is where the story begins. How did he die? Was it suicide? Was he killed? What has this got to do with the Catholic Church and the Jews?

In all of this arrives Professor Stavans, who is just there to give a theological lecture on the history of Jews and talks about “crypto-Jews” of that area and how did they manage to come out to America from Europe. This of course is depicted as the “fictional” Stavans.

Without even knowing, Stavans is drawn into the mystery of Rolando’s death and to find some documents that could hold the key to it all. But that’s not it. In the midst of all this, there is another angle – of Luis de Carvajal also known as “El Iluminado” (the Enlightened One) – who was a sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic, who but obviously is a “crypto-Jew”.

So who are these “crypto-Jews”? Who are these mysterious people that keep popping up helping Stavans or not in his quest?

I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic novel. Stavans writes with great clarity and Sheinkin’s illustrations are simple and add to the story quite well. There are hints of it being real but largely this story is fictional. If you are fan of religions and want to know more about the displacement of the Jews and right from the sixteenth century or earlier than that, then this book is for you.

Affiliate Links:


El Iluminado / The Enlightened One


Iluminado: A Graphic Novel

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks Title: People of the Book
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780143114543
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Pages: 448
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I am a little skeptical about reading historical fiction at times, more so when set in regions whose history I am unaware of. I like to be prepared when I am reading a book. It is only fair to the writer. More over, I don’t think I would be able to read a book without knowing the place inside out. The reason I mention this is my last read was all about place in the book, or rather places, their history and culture. I first read about “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks while reading, “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe and for some reason wanted to read it since a while.

Historical fiction has always been at a top-slot genre for me. I love it. I love to relive and imagine the places and events that have taken place in the past and are of great historical significance. How things were then? What were the issues? Are things any different today? Questions such as these have always attracted me towards historical fiction. The minute I got to know that the “People of the Book” was about a book saved from being destroyed at every stage of its journey, I knew I had to read it. I read and I cannot stop talking about it to everyone I meet.

“People of the Book” is about the Sarajevo Haggadah and its beauty and importance in the Jewish community. A Haggadah is a book that tells the story of Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It is based on a true story. Of how the Haggadah which is one of its kind – with beautiful illustrations and contexts – was saved by a librarian during WWII and then traversed the entire planet so to speak before being showcased in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Its origin is traced to Barcelona and it is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold.

“People of the Book” is a fictional account of its journey as seen through Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator, who is responsible for restoring the Haggadah. The story alternates between her present and the times in which the Haggadah was set and tried to be destroyed by various people. The story travels from Sarajevo to Europe and back home and to me that worked like a charm.

What is even more magnificent about the book is the way Geraldine Brooks explores the stories of people who came in touch with the book. Hanna finds clues when she first chances upon the Haggadah in the form of – preserved butterfly remnants, wine stains, a strand of white hair and salt crystals on it, which tells the story of the book. I love this kind of structure in books. Stories within stories help me relate and uncover the book for myself. Hanna takes it upon herself to know more about the book and flies halfway across the world in her quest. This I loved about the book. Hanna’s relationships are also covered along the way which made a lot of sense to me. The book is almost a rollercoaster ride – from chapter to chapter with a brilliant end.

While reading the book, I was overwhelmed by the idea that someone would want to destroy books basis religions and the idea of not being tolerant enough or accepting enough to include everyone. I love the writing. Geraldine Brooks is a master of historical fiction. She brings to life the story like probably no one else can. The writing makes you gasp for breath. It is sharp and revelatory. It is almost like images are being played out in front of you and you as a reader just has to lay back and watch them transform into a well-told story. The book is also intellectual and yet reads like a thriller, which very few books manage to do. It almost reminded of “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco as I was reading it.

I could feel myself getting way too emotional while reading the book. The idea of a book being destroyed is unthinkable for me. The entire Jews conflict in the book only added more dimension to the story. I mean, it happened for real, so there is no way that goes away from it, but only enriches the book from every single perspective.

The dimensions and layers of this novel are innumerable. As a reader I was only more than satisfied as I turned every single page. It speaks of the vivid splendors of bookmaking (there is almost an entire chapter on it which is beautiful), the artistry is beautifully described and more than anything else the freedom of thought that leads to books being written, which no one can destroy, is subliminally expressed.

“People of the Book” looks at intermingling of cultures, it speaks of love for the written word, it makes you look at saving every single book, it makes you see things as a reader and as an observer and after all of this, it will make you understand that humanity comes before any kind of religion or faith. Thank you Will for suggesting this book in your book. A must read guys. Go get it.

Affiliate Link:

Buy People of the Book from Flipkart.com

Book Review: The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Title: The Emperor of Lies
Author: Steve Sem-Sandberg
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
ISBN: 9780887842597
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 608
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When I first started reading, “The Emperor of Lies” I was a bit daunted by the size of the book – 700 pages and that too of Holocaust literature, I was almost prepared to be depressed and miserable. However, I soon realized that there are times in life when may be one has to read a certain book for the sheer power of its writing and not always because of the content. There have been a lot of books written about the Holocaust, so much so that it has become a genre in its own and to add to this is, “The Emperor of Lies”, by Steve Sem-Sandberg, translated competently by Sarah Death.

The Emperor of Lies is a fictionalized account (but of course) of events from the actual archives of Poland’s Ghetto from September 1942 to January 1945. This ghetto was the second largest in Poland set up by the Nazis as a holding center to transport Jews to the concentration camps.

The “Emperor of Lies” was Mordechai Chaim Murkowski, a 63 year old Polish Jew, who was appointed by the Nazis to take charge of the ghetto and its functioning. In the book, he is known as the Chairman. Murkowski before the Nazi regime was a prosperous businessman. Although he reported directly to the Nazis, he had an authoritarian rule over the Jews at the ghetto. His primary function was to ensure that the ghetto was provided with electricity, work, food, heat, housing, and health and welfare.

There are two coins to every story. While Murkowski was responsible for keeping half the Jew population in the ghetto alive by making them manufactures a variety of goods for the German Army. This ensured that this ghetto was the last to be liquidated. While Murkowski believed in, “Work sets you free”, he also is portrayed to be ignorant, vulgar, power-hungry, who was attracted to women and children. On one hand he is made to seem to be a Nazi collaborator and on the other, shown to be a saviour of the Jews.

The book is hard hitting. Sem-Sandberg takes the reader to the very heart of evil and makes you see things as they were in those times. The Emperor of Lies also gives voice to quarter of a million Jews of Lodz who vanished without a trace. He paints an honest picture of corruption at the Jewish Ghetto Administration Council. The novel is unique – in the sense that it provides a complete picture of Murkowski and his actions. It does take sides and does not want the reader to. The Emperor of Lies does not paint a pretty picture. The reader will cringe in most places and might be tempted to let go of the book. However this is a different take on the Holocaust. A book that you should read if you want to know more about those times.