[Review] Berlin: Life and Death in the City at the Center of the World by Sinclair McKay

Publisher and Publication Date: St. Martin’s Press. August 23, 2022.
Genre: Nonfiction. History.
Pages: 464.
Format: E-book.
Source: I received a complimentary e-book from NetGalley. I am not required to write a positive review.
Audience: World War II history readers with a setting of Berlin, Germany.
Rating: Very good.

Link @ Amazon.

Sinclair Lewis’s author page at Goodreads.

Summary:

Beginning in 1919, just after World War II, the city of Berlin is explored in its history, culture, society, and its changing politics.

The book holds more information about pre-World War II, World War II, and post-World War II Berlin. There is a brief analysis of the period during the fall of the Berlin wall. However, my interests are where the book’s emphasis is held-the war years.

My Thoughts:

I’ve read more books on World War II than after the war. This is what drew me to read this book. It is the main reason that held my interest.

Several reasons on what I learned or why I enjoyed this book:

  1. The bombing raids over Berlin were filled with women and children. I have empathy for them. McKay is descriptive about the shelters, bombings; and later when the Russians are in Berlin at the close of the war, the raping of the women-women of all ages.
  2. Brief memoirs are given of people who lived in Berlin. These are not lengthy but serve a strong purpose to personalize the book rather than let it be academic in nature.
  3. Some of the memoirs are of Jews who hid during the entirety of the war.
  4. The Nazis used the poverty and sadness of the people after World War I for their agenda. Their agenda included the young people in Hitler youth groups. It is eye-opening and disturbing how people can be taken advantage of and misled to the extent of indoctrination to mass murders and war. I have empathy for the beginnings of how they must have felt after World War I. I cannot agree to decisions that were made.
  5. Several things I’d not heard of before about Berlin society and culture. For example, there was a craze to be a nudist. This happened right after World War I. I did not know that there were revolutionary demonstrations after World War I. I knew the Nazis began to rise and have demonstrations. I did not know about other political groups.
  6. There is a chapter with a focus on the history of film. There were 300 cinemas in Berlin at the time of World War II. Hitler loved film, and he chronicled his ideology and work.
  7. Berlin had been a place that was tolerant of the gay culture. There were doctors who had helped people transition. This changed during the Nazi years.
  8. I had mentioned this in number 1 above. There is a disturbing story of a young woman who worked in a grocery store during the time the Russians came into Berlin. She was raped on the counter during the time the store was open. This rape was public. It was done with the intention to dishonor and shame her in view of other people.
  9. By 1960 there were over 200,000 people who in East Berlin left to live in freedom on the other side. This is such an important chapter, to share memoirs about those who tried to escape.

I want to clarify. I do not have empathy for the Nazi machine. They were mass murderers and instigated a war that led to defeat. I have great empathy for those like the woman who was raped in a grocery store. I have empathy for any child who was abused and suffered. I am also not going to state something as equally hateful as “you got what you deserved.” I am not that kind of person. However, the Nazis were despicable people. I believe many of them, civilians, were unaware of the consequences in believing Hitler was their savior.

(Review) Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

 

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Publisher and Publication Date: Alfred A. Knopf. May 8, 2018.
Genre: Fiction.
Pages: 304.
Source: Self-purchase.
Rating: Excellent.

Amazon

A bio of Michael Ondaatje from Goodreads

An excellent review from Jenny Shank, The Dallas Morning News.

Summary:
Nathaniel, age 14, and his sister, Rachel, age 16, are left in the guardianship of a man known as The Moth. Their parents are going overseas. They will be gone for at least a year. The two young people will continue living in their home, but will have a new type of family. They live in London, England. Their parents both worked during the war doing something for the government. The time period of the story is 1945 through the late 1950s. The Moth has other people visit the home, they are known to him, but a mystery to Nathaniel and Rachel. Nathaniel and Rachel believe these people are possibly criminals.

My First Impressions:

1.The opening line was a clincher for me.

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. Page 5.

2. The first part of the story moves along at a slow thoughtful pace.
3. The narrator, Nathaniel, is telling the story of his life when he was a young adult. He blends both his thoughts then, and a bit of his current mature thinking. Not enough to reveal anything, at least not in part one.
4. The story has a sad cloud hovering over it, and the cloud doesn’t leave.
5. Warlight is a thinking book. It is a particular type of story where the reader must understand this is not going to be a cheerful book. And, the author is trying to tell us something important. The characters have too much to hide about their lives. And many of those hidden things will never be revealed, no matter how many rocks are explored and turned over.
6. Warlight shows things are not always what they seem in regards to people. People we think are scary are in fact not. And people who are supposed to love and care for us are incapable of doing so. Nevertheless, what people do with what has happened to them is the bigger story.

Final Thoughts:

1. I read Warlight in two days! The first part moved at such a slow pace, and at times I wondered when is “it” going to pick up and show me something? I hung on, and I am so glad I did. The second half of the book is a treasure.
2. Several lines in the story are beautiful, meaningful, and memorable. For example:

The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out. Page 129.

If you grow up with uncertainty you deal with people only on a daily basis, to be even safer on a hourly basis. You do not concern yourself with what you must or should remember about them. You are on your own. So it took me a long time to rely on the past, and reconstruct how to interpret it. Page 169.

We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time. Page 256.

If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written. Page 275. This is my favorite line in the book!

We order our lives with barely held stories. Page 284.

I read The English Patient a few years ago. Warlight reminds me a little of The English Patient in that both books are showing people and life are not what they seem to be. There are hidden things people keep locked in their hearts. But, this does not mean they don’t love. Both books are tragic in a way. However, life is tragic, it has happy moments, but many sad moments. Nevertheless, it is all in how we react to those tragic places.

Warlight is a memorable book for me. I will not forget this story. I believe Michael Ondaatje has written a masterpiece. Thank you!