Alan Gratz: Prisoner B-3087

image_about_loraxBased on a true story of Jack Gruener, Prisoner B-3087 tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, Yanek Gruener.

He is 10 years old when the Nazi’s gradual extermination of European Jews begins. Yanek’s dad is confident that the West will protect them and that the war will not last long. Yanek takes these words as fact and goes about life as though everything were normal.

However, when Poland is annexed, it’s clear that he cannot resume normalcy; Jewish children were prohibited from attending schools, Jews were banned from working, going to the movies, etc. Worst of all, they were branded with the Star of David. Explicitly marked as despicable Jews. 

By the time Yanek is 12, a solid wall is built around his neighborhood, now officially a Jewish ghetto. Now he had to share his home with 14 other people. Although his dad continue to assure them that everything will end quickly, Yanek is no longer sure. Within a year, Yanek’s entire family and relatives are deported. He remains alone in his old neighborhood until he too is taken away to a labor camp. Thus begins nearly 4 years of being transported from one camp to a worse camp where death, starvation, torture, and endless labor become the new normal.

Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic

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“Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all. A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exist.

The Buddha in the Attic is a short novel based on the true experiences of Japanese-American immigrants in the early 1990s. It begins with a group of group of Japanese picture brides journeying to America on a boat to finally meet the husbands they only knew through letters and photos. They compare photos of their spouses and imagine what their new lives will be like in a foreign country where men held doors for women and it’s always “ladies first.”

However, it turns out that even in America, they will lead invisible lives — both as women and as Japanese immigrants. It turns out they were lied to. Their husbands are 20 years older than the photos led them to believe. Their husbands weren’t accomplished business men in American. It turns out they would still be farmers wives or house maids in a foreign land that didn’t welcome them.

As years go on, the women slowly lose their sense of identity. They stop grooming themselves and live routine emotionless lives as though they were machines. Working in the public for their families and working in the home for their husbands. But whatever the Japanese women do, they remain in the background — quiet, cleanly, and reliable, but always invisible.

When war breaks out, the situation worsens for Japanese Americans. Eventually, the suspicion grows and they are removed from their communities. It is only then do the Americans notice the Japanese among them. It is only when they disappear that they become present.

Overall, this book was interesting to me because it was like all of the Japanese picture brides from the both were speaking in one voice and their experiences melted together into one. It was also beautifully written — quiet and gentle, as though a Japanese person was speaking to me.

David Finkel: Thank You for Your Service

Journalist David Finkel provides an insightful look into the lives of Iraq & Afghanistan war veterans in his latest book, “Thank You for Your Service.” As many Americans are aware, returning soldiers often struggle with severe mental health issues, often leading to suicide. In fact, in the book, Finkel addresses the fact that the suicide rate among Iraq & Afghan veterans have increased dramatically despite top-down efforts to curtail the issue.

Sadly, I wasn’t shocked to read about the struggles veterans experience in trying to receive help from federal programs designed to help physically/psychologically/emotionally wounded veterans. Indeed, the lack of compassion expressed by professionals or the bureaucratic system soldiers must go through was more aggravating than surprising. I’m not saying that these costly programs are ineffective and, therefore, should be gotten rid off.  I’m sure it helps some people; group therapy may be reminiscent of the camaraderie experience abroad. But honestly, do soldiers really have to be put through such dreadful systems that even we don’t like to go through? Shouldn’t we make treatment more accessible and easy?

It also occurred to me that veterans are often burdened with guilt over their war activities/behaviors, feeling monstrous for lack of compassion expressed and blaming themselves for the death of fellow soldiers. Maybe what they really need is to know that they’re forgiven, especially by those they love most. They need to know they are not inhumane and that there is a reason they’re still alive. Yet, I realized that their aren’t many programs, if any, that help the families of soldiers prepare for either possible loss or the return of soldiers who may come back with baggage from the war. Maybe such programs should be implemented. Maybe prepared families may facilitate the likelihood of effective and lasting healing.