“Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948” by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012)

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In this moving true story of Madeleine Albright’s past as a child growing up in Europe, readers get to experience her discoveries of her history through her words, many of them a shock to her, especially with her Jewish heritage.  In a way, Prague Winter is a voyage of discovery and with Albright’s clear and honest writing style, readers are swept away by her prose.

This is the harsh story of a world that now seems unfamiliar to us, when a rising Germany controlled by a vicious dictator saw the fate of human existence in black and white, where only the white were allowed to survive in Hitler’s mind.  As a child growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia, it is a heart-wrenching story in some ways, as Albright tells it with skill and drama, mounting the tension that was very real, as she and her family left their home country for England.  But stories continued to unfold of what was happening back in their native nation.

Albright has clearly done a lot of research for this book, not just on her own family, but on the history and sources of the period, along with many photos from that time, it presents a thorough picture of this part of Europe during World War II and the rise of the Fuhrer.  It is also an insight into the culture of the Czechs, a people who do not bow down lightly and whose patriotism and culture is everything to them.  In some ways, Prague Winter reads like a powerful history book that would make great reading for any high school or college student wanting to learn more about the period; and at the same time it is a poignant biography of these people and of this child that was shaped into the incredible woman that she was to become.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain” by Peter Sís (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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Author and artist, Peter Sís, has had anything but an ordinary life.  He was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia and grew up in Prague during the end of World War II and through the Cold War in Stalin’s Russia.  In The Wall he tells his story of growing up in this world in picture book form, using a simplistic artistic style and careful useful of color for poignancy.

While the book is aimed at 9-12 year olds, it can be read by a person of any age.  The story is somewhat simplistic because of who it is written for, but it is still moving and effective in its goal.  Coupled with actual passages from Sís’s diary that he kept growing up, one gets a sense of what this world must have been like on the other side of the Iron Curtain in a country other than Russia.  There is the sense of fear and repression, but perhaps not so much for those living closer to Moscow.  Sís uses black and white illustrations with a strong vibrant red to indicate the power and control of Soviet Russia.

The Wall is a special story that you won’t read anywhere, which told in picture book form, adds a certain amount of importance and impact that just a page of words wouldn’t have to that extent.  The result is a short, simple, but effective picture book that can be read or read to anyone of any age.

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Originally written on December 2nd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“City of Thieves” by David Benioff (Viking Adult, 2008)

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From David Benioff, author of The 25th Hour and screenwriter for The Kite Runner, comes an original tale of adventure, laughter, and ongoing mystery set against the backdrop off World War II and the Siege of Leningrad.  City of Thieves is a fast-paced, enjoyable book that will have you telling your friends about it.

Lev Beniov is a Leningrad local, fondly referring to the city of his birth as Piter after Petersburg.  Left to fend for himself with some friends, he spends his days starving, foraging for food.  When a dead Nazi falls from the sky via parachute, he ransacks the body for food.  He is soon captured by the Russian army and is imprisoned expecting execution, because all findings are required to be turned over to the Russian army.  In prison he befriends an unusual man named Kolya, a deserter.  The Colonel surprisingly offers the two a deal for their freedom and survival: to find twelve eggs in less than a week for his daughter’s wedding cake.

And so begins a most unusual adventure, filled with danger, horror, and hunger.  But Benioff keeps the book fast-paced and entertaining with the back and forth banter between the main characters: Lev is a seventeen year old virgin, and Kolya is a very vocal sex addict.  While at times the language and actions of the characters force readers to remind themselves it’s 1942, it is nevertheless a quick read that you won’t soon forget.

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Originally written on April 16th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.