Book Review – Dawn by Elie Wiesel

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Book: Dawn
Author: Elie Wiesel
Genre: Historical fiction, Nobel Prize Winner

I hate to give this novella anything but a five-star rating. Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, is an amazing read; he is an incredible person. I admire him tremendously for having the courage to write a raw account of his experiences during the Holocaust; for spearheading the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and for his advocacy in speaking out against intolerance, racism, and hatred. His writing has become a voice for the millions who have been silenced, and those who are still suffering.

I have long admired Elie Wiesel for reaching out beyond his religious and cultural community to work towards equality for all. No, he is not without some controversy: I don’t agree with his admiration and support for Netanyahu, and some of his remarks in regards to Palestinians are definitely questionable. He’s not perfect. No one is (nope, not even President Obama). But I wholeheartedly admire the man and what he has accomplished as a whole.

I did not, however, love Dawn. Dawn is the fictional story of a young Holocaust survivor, Elisha, who is recruited by the Movement – what I believe to be based upon the real-life Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization that operated between 1931 and 1948 – to become a freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine. The entire novella takes place over the span of one night. Elisha is tasked with assassinating a British officer who has been kidnapped, as retribution for the capture and hanging of a fellow freedom fighter. Over the course of the night, Elisha wrestles with his conscience, God, and the ghosts of his family, over what he is tasked to do.

“You are the sum total of all that we have been,” said the youngster who looked like my former self. “In a way we are the ones to execute John Dawson. Because you can’t do it without us. Now, do you see?”

I was beginning to understand. An act so absolute as that of killing involves not only the killer, but, as well, those who have formed him. In murdering a man I was making them murderers.

The writing in Dawn is just as beautiful as in Night. And the story brings up some important ethical and philosophical questions that Wiesel brings up in the preface: “How are we ever to disarm evil and abolish death as a means to an end? How are we ever to break the cycle of violence and rage? Can terror coexist with justice? Does murder call for murder, despair for revenge? Can hate engender anything but hate?”

My problem is that these questions are not appropriately addressed in such a small book. What is left is the feeling of justifying a person’s acts of terror by blaming the enemy. An idea in which I vehemently disagree. Wiesel may very well be making this very point in this novel: that treating an innocent person (John Dawson) the same way you (Elisha) were treated when you were powerless, is just as hideous an act as the acts of terror committed against you. But the impression the story gives leans towards the opposite.

“On the day when the English understand that their occupation will cost them blood they won’t want to stay,” Gad told us. It’s cruel – inhuman if you like. But we have no other choice. For generations we’ve wanted to be better, more pure in heart than those who persecuted us. You’ve all seen the result: Hitler and the extermination camps in Germany. We’ve had enough of trying to be more just than those who claim to speak in the name of justice. When the Nazis killed a third of our people just men found nothing to say. If ever it’s a question of killing off Jews, everyone is silent; there are twenty centuries of history to prove it. We can rely only on ourselves. If we must become more unjust and inhuman than those who have been unjust and inhuman to us, then we shall do so. We don’t like to be bearers of death; heretofore we’ve chosen to be victims rather than executioners. The commandment Thou shalt not kill was given from the summit of one of the mountains here in Palestine, and we were the only ones to obey it. But that’s all over; we must be like everybody else. Murder will not be our profession but our duty. In the days and weeks and months to come you will have only one purpose; to kill those who have made us killers. We shall kill in order that once more we may be men…”

The philosophical underpinnings of Dawn deserve a longer book, but somehow, plotwise, Dawn has too much padding. Yes, I know that sounds like I am completely contradicting myself! I feel that this is a small little book that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and is one of the weaker works out of all that Elie Wiesel has written.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Picks for a “Read the World” Book Club

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week the theme was Top Ten Books to Read if Your Book Club Likes __________. My fill in the blank choice is a focus on diversity and authors from around the world. I have a personal long-term challenge goal of reading a book by an author from every country, and I think  it would be equally awesome to be a part of a book club whose goal was to “Read the World”! 

Top Ten Books for a Read the World Book Club

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed “scientist of women”; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires.

These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany’s remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world.

Why I recommend it: Captivating writing and storytelling.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Ethiopia/America)

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics — their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him — nearly destroying him — Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others.

Why I recommend it: Despite a slow beginning, I fell in love with the characters and setting. Verghese writes a moving family drama set against the backdrop of medical practice in Ethiopia, and the turmoil between Ethiopia and Eritrea. If you do not know the history of Ethiopia or Eritrea, I definitely recommend a quick bit of research into Emperor Selassie, Mengistu, the Eritrean Liberation Front, and the history of  Ethiopian and Eritrean relations before delving into this excellent novel.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/America/Britain)

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Why I recommend it: Because I love everything written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved Ifemelu’s blog posts, and her commentary on the different societies portrayed in the novel.

 

 

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (India/Britain)

One of the most controversial and acclaimed novels ever written, The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie’s best-known and most galvanizing book. Set in a modern world filled with both mayhem and miracles, the story begins with a bang: the terrorist bombing of a London-bound jet in midflight. Two Indian actors of opposing sensibilities fall to earth, transformed into living symbols of what is angelic and evil. This is just the initial act in a magnificent odyssey that seamlessly merges the actual with the imagined. A book whose importance is eclipsed only by its quality, The Satanic Verses is a key work of our times.

Why I recommend it: A fascinating novel for those who like magical realism. The content of The Satanic Verses is also the reason why the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie when it was published. It would make for an extremely interesting book club discussion.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (India/America)

The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name.

Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves.

Why I recommend it: If you can’t tell by now, I love reading books about the immigrant experience. This is an excellent introduction to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri. I love all of her books!

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (India)

In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas lives an embittered judge who wants only to retire in peace, when his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. The judge’s cook watches over her distractedly, for his thoughts are often on his son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one gritty New York restaurant to another. Kiran Desai’s brilliant novel, published to huge acclaim, is a story of joy and despair. Her characters face numerous choices that majestically illuminate the consequences of colonialism as it collides with the modern world.

Why I recommend it: Kiran Desai’s writing reminds me of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, one of my favorite books I have ever read. The Inheritance of Loss delves into the topic of post-colonialism, interesting subject matter for book club discussions!

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)

Annie John is a haunting and provocative story of a young girl growing up on the island of Antigua. A classic coming-of-age story in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kincaid’s novel focuses on a universal, tragic, and often comic theme: the loss of childhood. Annie’s voice—urgent, demanding to be heard—is one that will not soon be forgotten by readers.

Why I recommend it: I read Annie John while vacationing in Nevis this past August, another small Caribbean island. Jamaica Kincaid is a brilliant writer, and the universal theme of the relationship between mothers and daughters would make it an excellent group read near Mother’s Day.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabríel Garcia Márquez (Colombia)

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.

Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility — the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth — these universal themes dominate the novel. Whether he is describing an affair of passion or the voracity of capitalism and the corruption of government, Gabriel Garcia Marquez always writes with the simplicity, ease, and purity that are the mark of a master.

Why I recommend it: In my opinion, Márquez is one of the greatest writers of our time. If you or your book club like magical realism, he is the master and creator of the genre.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan)

I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education.

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

I Am Malala will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.

Why I recommend it: The only non-fiction book on my list, but a story that needs to be heard by everyone. The writing is not perfect, but Malala’s indomitable spirit and perseverance shines through.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Japan)

In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.

Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.

Why I recommend it: It’s brilliant. BRILLIANT.

What is on your Top Ten Tuesday list this week?

 

Top Ten Tuesday: All-Time Favorite Dystopian Books

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosting by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic  choosing your top ten favorite books of all time. I have decided to keep it fairly broad, and will list my all-time favorite dystopian books. 

These are not in any particular order. That is asking too much!

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  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I first discovered this gem in an undergrad women’s lit course, and it has been a firm favorite ever since.

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2. 1984 by George Orwell. 1984 has come and gone, but this book has definite staying power.

 

3 & 4. Cress and Winter by Marissa Meyer – Cinder does not make my top ten dystopian novels, but later books in the series certainly do. I am still surprised at how these books have turned me into a fangirl.

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5. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – I love everything she writes, and it is quite hard not to fill this list just with Atwood’s books! This is my favorite of the MaddAddam trilogy.

6, 7 & 8. The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins – These have to be included together. I loved all three of them!

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9. Blindness by José Saramago – It is rare that a dystopian author ends up with a Nobel Prize for Literature. That is how I discovered this book, from a Nobel Prize reading challenge. It is incredible (and incredibly chilling)!

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10. The Giver by Lois Lowry – I have read The Giver quite a few times over the years, and I always get something new out of it.