What I'm Reading (No. 78): James Michener + an Auschwitz story
With the holiday last week, plus my in-laws taking the kids for a few days, I was able to get some extra reading done. Always feels like a gift when that happens. Hopefully you got in some good reading time as well.
Among other things, I finished a slim novel by James Michener — an author far more well known for his gargantuan epics. I also raced through one of the craziest WWII non-fiction stories I've ever come across. Let's get right to it.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri by James Michener (1953)
Centennial. Hawaii. Alaska. Poland. The novels of James Michener tend to be sprawling, 900-page place-based epics that bring you through the entire history of a particular spot on the planet. I read Centennial as part of my Westerns project last year and really enjoyed it.
Early in his career, though, Michener served as an embedded reporter for the Korean War; he was specifically covering the battles in the air. From that experience came this 83-page novel that follows a group of young Navy pilots, and the Admiral, as their aircraft carrier navigates the rough waters off of Korea and is tasked with taking out an important series of heavily-guarded supply bridges.
The story pulls you in right away. Michener depicts the harrowing realities of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier better than any other author I've encountered. Average Joe can't really imagine the stress involved both for the pilot and the man on the ship who's responsible for leading him in; with Michener's writing, you can imagine it. The same can be said for the harrowing missions the squadron embarks on.
Interestingly, even just a week later, I don't really remember the main character's names. And yet their stories are imprinted into my memory. With such a short novel there obviously isn't much depth, but I guarantee you'll remember the events and conversations.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri isn't a well-known novel; I only found it while specifically searching for the best novels of the Korean War. I'm not sure why that is, but to my mind, it's worthy of being a classic in the realm of war novels. (And will only take you an afternoon or two to read.)
A Superb Bit of Bookish Journalism
This story about The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven is fascinating. The 2010 book was a Christian publishing sensation, and spawned a wave of titles in the niche of heavenly encounters. The problem was that years later the child renounced those "memories," and claimed to have been dragged into the situation by his now-estranged father. The article is superbly well-done. One of my favorite lines:
In the middle of it all is Alex, the boy—now a man—whose story about a trip to heaven disintegrated into a very specific kind of family hell.
The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather (2019)
“I have listened to many confessions of my friends before their death. They all reacted in the same unexpected manner: they regretted they hadn’t given enough to other people, of their hearts, of the truth . . . the only thing that remained after them on Earth, the only thing that was positive and had a lasting value, was what they could give of themselves to others.” -Pilecki
In my head, I've read plenty about the Holocaust. But when I really think about it, it's mostly been tangential among all my other WWII reading. I read Anne Frank's diary in school, of course. And Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is a classic as well. But beyond that, I can't think of much I've read that centers on the Holocaust. There are numerous great books about it, including a lot of first-person memoirs, but to be honest, I think I've been reluctant to read them for the sheer fact that I assume they'll just be too sad. So ends my confession. And how wrong I was.
The Volunteer centers on Auschwitz — the central piece of the Nazis' extermination program. The hero of the story is Witold Pilecki. As a member of the Polish resistance, he had some idea of what happened there, but not much. To their mind, it was sort of a POW labor camp. (And at the start, at least, that's really what it was.) So Polecki, astonishingly, volunteered to be captured and sent there as a way to learn more information and start a resistance movement from within.
He of course had no idea how horrific it really would be.
There's so much I could write about this book . . . the premise alone — a man offering himself up to the brutality of Auschwitz — should catch your attention, as it did mine. Beyond that, it's a fascinating and of course disturbing history of Auschwitz, a look at why the Allied nations didn't take action sooner (Polecki begged them to bomb the place, even if he it meant his own death, just so the horror would end), and how humanity can rise up out of the literal ashes to perform courageous deeds that are beyond comprehension.
That's in fact the benefit of reading about the Holocaust. Yes, it's an episode in our history that shows the horror of what humanity is capable of. But, it also shows our species' gutsiness, fortitude, bravery, and capacity to love. And that's the important part.
The Volunteer is a great book that deserves more attention than it's getting.
A Holocaust Reading List
Following up on the above, this is a list for the sake of my own reading. Let me know if you've read any of these, and/or any I need to add.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. A behemoth of a classic that discusses not just the Holocaust but also the fuel for Naziism. Maybe this will be next summer's read.
Martin Gilbert's works. The famous Churchill biographer also has a lot on the Holocaust, though I'm not sure where to begin.
Night by Elie Weisel. Sitting on my shelf, actually, and will be read shortly.
The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees. Rees seems to be an expert on the topic. He also has a book specifically about Auschwitz.
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann. Got a bunch of accolades in 2015.
HHhH by Laurent Binet. A fictional account of the assassination of high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. Very intrigued by this one.
If This is a Man by Primo Levi. Supposed to be one of the best and most moving first-person accounts of being a prisoner at Auschwitz.
That's all for this week. I'd love to hear what you've been reading. As always, thank you for the time and inbox space.