LITERATURE OR LIFE

A moving account of life in Buchenwald and a subsequent lifetime spent trying to write about it, by the Spanish novelist and screenwriter best known for his classic filmscripts (Z, La Guerre Est Finie) and a previous nonfiction account of his ordeal (The Long Voyage, 1964). Semprun was a 20-year-old philosophy student and a member of the French Resistance when he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and incarcerated. After 18 months in Buchenwald, he was freed by American troops—and thereafter endured almost a half-century of vacillation between variously failed attempts at capturing his experiences in ``literature'' (unable to span ``the insurmountable gulf between what you envision and its narrative realization'') and equally painful efforts to shrug off that burden. Circling back and forth among various past times and the present, Semprun creates a discursive and dramatic mosaic in which ruminations about his obligations as a survivor and struggles as a writer alternate with memories of encounters in the camp (with dying comrades, a young Russian ``barbarian'' who worked as an orderly, and a Jewish- American lieutenant who was one of his ``liberators,'' among others); relationships with literary friends and sympathetic lovers before and after the war; and—always—discussions of books and writers that influenced him profoundly (for example, Kafka's letters to his fiancÇe Milena JesenskÖ—who outlived him only to die in a concentration camp). Initially, Semprun's confession of his inability to sort out and write about such matters feels contrived, but the book gathers both internal logic and emotional power as it proceeds. In the concluding pages, in which Semprun learns from the suicide of fellow Holocaust victim Primo Levi that he too is mortal and must finish his work, and his discovery, during a return visit to Buchenwald in 1992, of the clerical error that undoubtedly saved his life, triumphantly justify his ``novel's'' long genesis and circuitous structure. A masterly work, and the obvious capstone of Semprun's distinguished career.

Pub Date: March 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-670-87288-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1997

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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