Review: Killing Hitler

It’s about time I did another review for the Eclectic Reader Challenge- this time, a nonfiction. It’s always a bit off-putting for me to read a nonfiction book. I’m not usually accustomed to them, and they take a while for me to finish. However, I do enjoy them when they have a good narrative, so when I saw this in my local indie bookstore I was intrigued by the premise.

Basically, this book is exactly what it sounds like: a tracing of numerous attempts to assassinate Hitler, ranging throughout the span of World War II. Each chapter highlights a different plot, from individual dissidents to underground organizations. However, what jumped out at me while reading this book was not so much the content of the story as the way it was told.

Firstly, each chapter told a different story. There was no central narrative; the chapters weren’t even placed in any kind of chronological order. It seemed to me more like an anthology than a single book. That’s not to say that it’s an altogether bad thing. Having new assassins and new storylines in each chapter made it all the more exciting for me as a reader. With every new plot there were new relationships to be explored, more motives to be uncovered. The only drawback to this, as I have stated above, is the seeming lack of any order to the stories.

Courtesy of Amazon, thus the bit at the top.

Because of this setup, each chapter was individually obliged to give tremendous detail as to the circumstances and historical context surrounding the main players of each particular assassination attempt, which I thought was just brilliant. Too many times in history classes or in our own research we focus simply on what happened without any thought as to how these things came to be. After all, what sense does an assassination attempt make if it was done by someone who, up to that point in time, had been an advocate of Hitler’s ideas? Where is the point at which that person switched sides, and what was the catalyst for that? These are the questions that are settled easily by Roger Moorhouse’s attention to such things. Once the historical context has been established, the reader can begin to more fully understand the true nature of an action.

Still, there is a point where things get to be too much. As an amateur writer myself and one who has sought the advice of numerous other writers and authors on the matter, I’ve found the general consensus to be that, when writing, the point one is trying to get across should be made as simply and briefly as possible. So when I found myself wading through a dozen pages or more of historical context per chapter, I began feeling that surely something could have been cut out. At the very least, the cover of the book had misled me in thinking that this would be a novel about assassination attempts. Rather, it focused more on the world in which these attempts were made, what kind of people made them, and why. And while that’s all right, the amount of what I felt was extra, almost redundant information was much too high for my liking. Overall, it made for a very messy appearance of the narrative.

One last critique, going back to the misleading premise of the book: At least three chapters (out of ten) didn’t contain any concrete assassination attempts at all. Rather, they were discussions of the plans that were almost attempted, or which were contemplated and then set aside, in the midst of that group’s or individual’s greater fight against Hitler and Nazi Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed those chapters all the same, but again I felt misinformed as to the nature of the book I had chosen for myself.

In general, this book gave me lots to think about in terms of how I expect nonfiction books to work, and how any story in general should or shouldn’t be told. While the plots themselves were interesting, the amount of prose to work through and the lack of any overarching structure served to worsen my reading experience. Perhaps it’s just my natural aversion to nonfiction books (and war history) talking, but as I got through Julie & Julia just fine, I don’t think that accounts for all of it. Still, I would advise my readers to be cautious in taking my word for it. As a rating, I’d give this book 2 out of 5 stars.

Happy reading.

Review: The Help

This month’s Eclectic Reader book was The Help by Kathryn Stockett (more info on the Eclectic Reader Challenge under the “Challenge” tab).  Since I don’t usually read historical fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immediately drawn into the story.  Everything, from the characters to the conflict, was beautifully done.

A short synopsis:  Aibileen is a black maid raising her seventeenth white child, a child whose mother shows no love towards her own daughter.  Aibileen’s friend, Minny, has a hard time holding onto a job, but manages to get one working for a young woman who has more going on in her house than she lets on.  Meanwhile, Skeeter is a white woman just home from college who wants more than anything to be a journalist.  Together, these three women start working on a tell-all book that will show what life is really like for black women in Mississippi.

Now, to say it was beautifully done is not to say the subject matter is beautiful.  The conditions and trials these women had to go through were in some cases downright horrifying.  I cannot even imagine being as awful as some of the white women portrayed in the book, though I know that if I had grown up during that time period I may very well have turned out that way.

Some of the things in this book baffled me.  On one hand, the maids are trusted and even needed to raise the children of white families.  And yet, throughout the book the main protagonist insists that “they” have different diseases than white people, that “they” should have separate bathrooms, that “they” cannot be trusted with polishing the family silver for fear of stealing it.  I can’t comprehend what sort of strange worldview would lead to these contradictory beliefs.

Moving on from the atrocities in this book…I thought the characters were wonderfully done.  I couldn’t pick a favorite if you asked me.  Aibileen, with her mothering nature?  Minny, the one who’s always got a sarcastic comment ready?  Or Skeeter, the curious and ambitious woman trying to eke out a new life for herself?  All of them were incredibly believable and I cared for them all during the course of the novel.  The prose was lovely as well.

Of course, the main bit of The Help is about civil rights.  It’s about people who have been kept quiet for so long finally speaking out and being heard, no matter the consequences.  But more than that, the thing that struck me, especially toward the end of the novel, is that this book is about freedom.

All of the protagonists, in one way or another, find personal freedom: freedom from people, from places, from situations.  They find ways to reinvent themselves, to carve their own paths, to let no one dictate for them what they will do with their lives.  That, I think, is the point of the novel: behind every big movement or decision is a need for freedom and change.

I can’t get over how just wonderfully done this novel was.  Everything flowed perfectly, and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time reading it.  This, I think, is a book that everyone needs to read, for several reasons.  Certainly the subject matter is something that cannot and should not be ignored, and that holds priority over any other reason to read it.  But in addition to that, people should read it just because it is a great book.  Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Well, I guess that’s all I have to say on the matter.  I’m hoping to watch the film adaptation of this book sometime soon.  We’ll see how it holds up to the print version.

Happy reading.