Archives for category: On My Shelf

the drowned and the savedWe’ve all heard about the Holocaust. An extremist German man imprisoned an estimated 15-20 million people in Death Camps, succeeding in killing an approximate 11 million. We’ve seen the stats; we know the facts. We’ve heard and read the stories; Anne Frank’s perhaps being the most famous. But there’s still so much more we don’t know, and never will. So many records destroyed, so many bodies burned or buried and lost. But have you ever wondered why it worked? And now, from where we stand in 2017, do we yet understand the magnitude of such a disastrous crime against humanity, by humanity?

Throughout the course of the war in the death camp Auschwitz alone, approximately 1.1 million were killed while it was staffed by a mere 7 thousand. Of course, the victims were starved, tormented, and tortuously overworked. And the Nazis had guns. But 1.1 million. The manpower alone could have overwhelmed 7,000, guns or no. The casualties would have been great, sure, but as we now see, and as most prisoners guessed their own fate, those fates were worse without an uprising. So, why wasn’t there one?

Well, that’s the part we don’t want to admit about Adolf Hitler. He was a racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, mass-murdering, and abhorrent human being, to put it lightly. But he was also a genius. That’s why it worked. Because the Holocaust was conducted brilliantly.

His greatest crimes do not only lie in the slaughter of 1.1 million people. Because before they were killed, they suffered far worse than death. His system was not fragile, and so, it was not destroyed from the inside.

If you want to know more, read the book. It’s dreadfully honest. And it gives you eyes into the self-perpetuating structure of the death camps. It will make you nauseous, it might make you cry. And to date, it is one of the most sickening and worthwhile books I’ve read. But don’t crack its spine on the dock of your vacation home. This isn’t one of those books to read under the sun with a lake lapping around you. It’s a book you read with the doors shut and a box of chocolates nearby. It’s the book you read as a tribute to those who didn’t make it out, and to those who did. To those who lived and died inside it’s pages. We don’t do that carelessly or with joy. But we should do it nonetheless.

Primo Levi offers a beautiful perspective on this horror. He stands apart from his torturers, and his experiences. His anger, his hatred, hardly leaks into his words until they are profoundly deserved. He’s an academic, at heart. He does not relinquish the oppressors of their guilt or forgive them of their sins. He does not hate the German people, though he admits their blind participation was pivotal, if not essential, for the capture and mass slaughter of millions of human beings. Instead, he seeks to learn, to understand, to punish those who deserve it, to forgive those he can, and, above all, prevent this from ever happening again.

I cannot give enough credit to Levi’s beautiful sense of humanity, or his ability to approach the subjects of this book with intelligence, and even with style, with the memories of his lost friends, his shame, and his experiences burning inside the pages. He offers a unique perspective on forgiveness. His is based on logic. It is not unconditional and it is not undeserved. Those who receive it, have also received his pity, his disappointment, and his compassion as he tries to understand. There are still many who have not been forgiven, and who never will.

This is all to say, Primo Levi’s work in this book, in his life, and his reaction to this atrocity is profound. This book will hurt you. But it will also help you. It’s important.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.


What turned me onto this book were recommendations from others. When people found out I was interested in writing On Writing came up. More than once, with glowing enthusiasm, and I’m so glad it did.

It’s not a story. It doesn’t have a plot. It’s not fantasy. All of these things made me hesitant and unsure about how much I would enjoy the read; it sat in a pile in my bedroom for too many weeks before the spine was cracked—and even then, only hesitantly. I always figured it would be worthwhile—it was Stephen King for christ’s sake—and although I’d never read him before, I’d always meant to. But a book about writing, something akin to essay writing, doesn’t have the same sort of pull others do.

I was absurdly wrong.

His writing is hilarious. His intelligence burns behind his words. On Writing’s got a comical autobiographical beginning that is punctured with sass, crass, and childhood accidents. Now that I’ve started reading one of his stories I can see how his life pre-writing-career affects his characters and his stories. His grit is bound up in reality and his own personality.

The latter half of the book is dedicated to language. It’s insightful, it’s vague where it should be (good writing doesn’t play by any One’s rules), it’s clear where it can be, and it’s packed with morsels of gold.

An important note: Stephen King is a prolific writer. He has a multitude of books, each of it’s own importance in literature. He does not write spoiler alert before talking about the process, start to finish, of writing of his stories; including the ends of them. Having never read one of his stories, I can now accurately tell you some endings and pivotal plot points in a certain few of his books. The Stand (currently on my bedside table with a bookmark stuck into the 167th page), and Misery, are two that come immediately to mind. He did so with well intended purpose, and the examples gave life to his points. Nevertheless, if you are a fan, and a fan who has not read all 53 of his other novels, I warn you. He only mentioned a small fraction of them, but he did mention some.

I’m not sure I recommend this to non-writers, or at least people who aren’t interested in the craft on some fundamental level.

If you are, however, this is not a book to disregard or overlook. It’s not a bore. Once I started it, I finished it quickly. It’s well written. It’s to the point. It’s intelligent.

And for the aspirant writer—it’s a must read.

I want to try something different.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to cut television out of my life. For good. For 20 years we’ve been involved in an unhealthy relationship. It’s been intense. It’s been time engulfing. And it’s been lethargic.

Well, I’m finally cutting that fat away. Or at least trying to.

(Note: This comes with one exception. Game of thrones will never be a waste of my time. For that reason I will always, and with a happy conscience, watch that show. Even if it’s the tenth time I’ve seen an episode. Even when they receive such profoundly negative flack for their portrayals of sexual violence or other such sensitive subjects. Game of thrones and I have had a great relationship from the start and I’m not sure D&D—and definitely not Martin—could do much to make me break up with it.)

I must admit I haven’t been as cold with my turkey as I planned, or at least hoped. But I’ve been much better. And so I’ve been left with shockingly lengthy days and not much to fill them with. Who knew a day could hold so much time?

I’m on summer vacation. There are jobs to be done, family to visit, and sun to be soaked. It’s been glorious, though not as busy as I am used to being as a student with a part-time job and an extra course load. So, what else is an aspiring writer to do? First, drink more coffee, (though I hardly need the extra caffeine boost these days). Second, read. Read a lot. Then read more. And third, well, write of course. Then rinse and repeat. The three go delectably well together if you ask me.

So I’ve been reading a lot. Big whoop. Except that I’ve decided I want to share what I’ve read. And so this is where you come in. In the past few weeks I’ve read a total of 3 and a half books. Most of which I started at some point over the school year but never had time to finish. Some were better than others. But all (so far) have been worthwhile.

Here, under the category ‘On My Shelf,’ I plan to tell you why; in other words, whether or not I leave this book on the shelf in the living room for people to see, or if it goes into the box bound for the second-hand bookstore. You don’t have to read the books after; you don’t have to like my reviews or even agree with them. Heck, you don’t even have to read them. But they’ll be here in case you’re interested. And maybe I can convince a few of you to read the books I enjoyed, or even loved. And I hope you end up loving them too. Either way, you can always leave me a lengthy comment explaining why you don’t.

This, I think, is going to be loads of fun.