Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (psychology, philosophy)

This classic — first published in 1959 and claiming “more than 15 million copies in print worldwide” — was disappointing to me. Two sections: part one deals with his survival in the concentration camps of WWII; part two discusses Logotherapy — the author’s theory that our primary driver in life is a search for meaning.

My problem is that part one has very little insight. The biggest insight to me was his statement that those who survived the camps were “not the best of us.” His other insight seemed to be obvious — that those who survived had something to look forward to — someone they hoped to find alive or some work they wanted to do. Quite a bit of discussion focused on finding meaning through suffering — in your reaction to suffering and the inner decision each man makes to be the kind of person he becomes. However, quite a bit seemed to be predicated on survival of some sort, either in this world or in a religious belief in an afterlife. Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz was a far more thorough coverage of a similar topic.

Part two on Logotherapy was overly simplified and dated. It’s possible that I would have gotten more out of it had I been willing to read the 12 volumes he wrote on it rather than this simplified version. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in the late 50s. One interesting point: he compares his “will for meaning” to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power.” I don’t claim to be a psychology expert but I wouldn’t have summarized Freud and Adler in that way. In any case, surely it’s clear that different people have different motivations and personal makeups.

The good news is that it is short at 154 pages. Possibly good to read for a history of psychological thought at the time but frankly pretty dull.

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Historical Fiction)

A beautifully written, meticulously researched, fictionalized history of the Kindertransport effort which managed to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi occupied Europe in the nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII (relocating them to England which temporarily waived immigration requirements for the effort. A similar effort in the U.S. was quickly quashed by FDR himself.)

We follow two narratives that slowly weave together: one follows Geertruida Wijsmuller or “Tante Truus,” — the Dutch woman who drives the Kindertransport effort from the politicking at home to the many, many, individual rescues in Europe. The other follows children and their families in Vienna who will eventually become part of Tante Truus’ transport.

I loved the characters — particularly the Austrian children. Clayton succeeded in making these children so bright and so real, their pain and determination nuanced and completely beyond the brief words I can find to describe them. Stephan Neuman — a 16-year old, budding playwright — and his five-year old brother Walter. Theirs is a highly cultured family, and I loved the immersion in the rich cultural world that Stephan inhabited. Stephan’s friend Žofie-Helene Perger — a mathematical prodigy whose non-Jewish mother is a journalist who speaks out against the Nazis putting herself and her family at great risk. And how can you not love Tante Truus who literally can’t bear to think about a child getting left behind if there were anything at all she could do to prevent it.

The real brilliance of Clayton’s book lies in the meticulous portrayal of the many tiny details that comprise life at that time — the underground tunnels, the linotype machines, and mouthwatering descriptions of the chocolatier’s trade. Hovering like a black cloud over these small details, the progressive hardships and changing attitudes of neighbors and friends, the slow shame that creeps up on children who are suddenly treated as different, the insidious and constant fear, disbelief, and tension that inhabits every moment. At the same time, the macroscopic details of global policies — the committees, the bureaucracy, the movements, and the fear on the part of foreign populations and governments as they slowly turn their backs on what was happening to the Jews (and other undesirables) in Europe as the Nazis plow their way through the continent. The book is utterly gripping.

For me, this is the best of the recent spate of WWII / Holocaust books: it felt incredibly real, and I was surprised to learn new things about a topic in which I’m quite well-read. I appreciated that the ultimately uplifting story was focused on survival and rescue, rather than the horrors and despair of the camps. A surprising extra: enduring the frustration (with our characters) of watching countries closing their borders to such desperate need (even though Jewish societies had offered financial support to ensure that host countries would not bear the costs) gave me a new perspective on the refugee crises facing the world today.

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.