Author: Thaisa Frank
Genre: Fiction (Historical)
Love/Hate?: Loved. Totally one of my top 10 of 2010.
Did I finish?: YES.
One-sentence summary: Translators living in an underground compound write letters for the dead during the end of World War II.
Why did I get this book?: I was actually intrigued by the Heidegger connection but found the book was way more than just a look at the philosopher.
Source: TLC Book Tours
Do I like the cover?: Yes.
Did...I find I could understand this novel despite being totally ignorant about philosophy?: YES. There's a philosopher as a character and some lovely passages that have a sort of philosophical bent to them, but the writing and the plot grab you immediately.
Was...I reminded a little of Michael Ondaatje and Jeanette Winterson?: YES. The book is delicate without being precious or overwrought; the essence of the story is there without being too thin or leaving the reader at arm's length.
Did...this book make me sad?: YES. BUT IN THE BEST WAY. I've been telling friends the feel of this book is a kind of poignant, bittersweet sadness that you want to savor a little -- not the kind of misery that ruins your weekend. I promise.
Review: Some where in my childhood, I remember seeing a PSA-style poster extolling the awesomeness of reading by saying you'll always remember the first time something you read made you cry. Even though I'm a softie, I do still recall -- quite vividly -- the pieces that have moved me deeply: Kurt Schork's Reuters piece about 'Romeo and Juliet' killed on Sarajevo's Vrbana Bridge; Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body; a breakup letter from my first adult love; and now, Thaisa Frank's gorgeous novel.
That said, please, please don't let the possibility of sorrow or sadness scare you away from picking up this book. Books about the Holocaust promise unhappiness and I steeled myself for some passages that would disgust or scare or horrify me; instead, Frank presents a story of the Holocaust in a delicate, deft way that allows pain and fear and deep sadness without making one want to jump off a bridge upon finishing. (In fact, when I finished, I just wanted to sit with a cup of tea and sniff with a cat in my lap. I wanted to savor the bittersweet, heartbreaking poignancy. I'm getting teary again just recalling it!)
The premise of the story is unbelievable and fascinating: the 'Scribes', sixty translators plucked from death or trips to the camps due only to chance and their ability to speak more than one language, live in an underground compound designed to resemble a bucolic village, tasked with writing letters to the living relatives of those killed at the camps. Managed by three SS officers who are more a part of the community than separate from it, the novel follows the events put into motion when Martin Heidegger's wife makes a ruckus about wanting to hear from a family friend, a man who was taken to Auschwitz.
Frank very quickly evokes the world of late World War II Germany, with it's mixture of grim efficiency and slavish devotion to the occult. Heidegger and his philosophical musings stick out as cruelly self-introspective and even inappropriate (there's a particularly moving scene in which he wants to discuss Being with a man just recently escaped from Auschwitz). What makes the story touching and human is that within this huge, horrible, sad event, she presents the small, every day battles and victories of the 'Scribes': loneliness, fear, desire, jealousy, the wish to belong, the awareness of what has been lost, surviving, finding love, human connection.
Courtesy of the publisher, I have a copy of Heidegger’s Glasses to give away! To enter, please leave a comment with your email address (U.S. or Canada, only, sorry!) before November 29th. The winner will be contacted then. For a chance at additional entries, be sure to come back on November 15th for my interview with Thaisa Frank.