Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Wives #8: The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman


Welcome to the 8th book in the Literary Wives series!

As I started reading this book I was a bit surprised as I expected more of a historical fiction format, and felt as if I was reading a documentary. Once I had read the first 30 pages or so I was enthralled, however! Ackerman has a real knack for descriptors and making the reader feel as if you are standing in Poland, seeing and experiencing everything as you read, as if you are one of the characters. 

I appreciated the outline of research completed to write this book as contained in the Author's Note at the beginning; I am always interested to know just how the author has compiled notes, etc. Although I have read about WWII before, I had no idea of the Nazis' great interest in "purifying" animal bloodlines. For example, Lutz Heck, one of the Nazi higher-ups, along with his brother Heinz, was "completely infatuated" with "the resurrection of three pureblooded, extinct species--the neolithic horses known as forest tarpans, aurochsen (the wild cow progenitor of all European cattle breeds), and the European or 'forest' Bison." The Heck brothers had produced some near Aurochsen and tarpans of their own just prior to WWII, however, the Polish strains "ran truer to type" and were "the clear inheritors." (Was that good or bad news for the Zabinski's?) Lutz appeared at the Warsaw Zoo one day pledging his "help," however, as Antonina stated, "For all we know he may just be playing with us. Big cats need little mice to toy with." Per a mutual friend, Antonina had been told that she reminded Lutz of his first great love, and while she was flattered by his attention and did find him to be "a true German romantic, naive in his political views and conceited perhaps, but courtly and impressive," she was also wary and distrusting of him and his motives. As well she should have been!                                                              
"Under the Third Reich, animals became noble, mythic, almost angelic..." However, in contradiction to this, the high-level Nazi officers got drunk and went on shooting sprees in the zoos, simply shooting animals dead in their cages! Antonina described the heartbreak and sorrow she felt as she heard the shots and realized all the zoo's animals would be dead. Jan was a "devout scientist" who credited Antonina "with the metaphysical waves of a nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals," claiming she was so sensitive to them, it was as if she could read their minds. Listening to them die had to be particularly heart wrenching after all the care Antonina had heaped upon these animals to make sure they were well-fed, healthy, and happy. These animals were like family members to both her and her son.

Antonina with Tofi and Tufa, two baby lynx kittens she
spent 6 months bottle-feeding and who remained
dependent upon her for another 6 months until they
reached one year of age.
However, as heartless as the Nazis appeared to be toward animals, in the end, it was nothing compared to their treatment of humans. Not only were the Nazis determined to eliminate any and all people of "inferior value" such as the Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, or Jews, but they were determined to retain only people they determined to be of "full value." All this to create their idyllic "race of Aryan god-men." Thus confirming what the world now knows--these men were psychotic sociopaths! "Although Mengele's subjects could be operated on without any painkillers at all, a remarkable example of Nazi zoophilia is that a leading biologist was once punished for not giving worms enough anesthesia during an experiment." Unbelievably sick and sadistic. I am always saddened by the cruelty humans have shown to other humans throughout history...

At the time, it was unknown to Antonina just how involved Jan was in the Resistance, and he only told her what he felt she must know, to help protect her. He stockpiled and distributed weapons and most of all, he used the Nazis fascination with animals to his advantage to come and go, delivering money and food to Jews hiding out in Warsaw and also those imprisoned in the Ghetto. It is estimated that the Zabinskis helped some 300 Jews escape without ever being caught. I do admit to feeling sorry for their son Rys who always had to be aware of keeping secrets: about the "guests" who came and went, while secretly delivering food to those hiding in various animal shelters, underground bunkers, etc. at the zoo. Not a life you would necessarily choose for a child, but tough times call for tough measures, and as Jan himself stated, "I only did my duty--if you can save somebody's life, it's your duty to try." This book certainly depicts the strength of the human spirit, both to endure and to help others whatever the risks!

Anonina and Jan feeding a baby bird.
Now for the "wife" questions!

According to Jan: "Antonina was a housewife, she wasn't involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger." 

1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife? Jan's comment above angered me. Exactly how was she NOT "involved in politics or war"? Just because she wasn't out and about the way he was didn't mean she wasn't responsible for all 300 people reaching safety. In fact, only 2 of these 300 didn't survive the war! She was the "leader" of this small group in the villa and totally responsible to care for and prevent the discovery of these "guests." To discount her as simply a "housewife," is, I believe, quite insulting! As usual, no matter how much a woman contributes, it seems those contributions are always viewed as less important than those of a man. I urge anyone doubting that to read this book and note how deftly Antonina handled many situations with brutal soldiers, saving not only herself, but all those for whom she was responsible while Jan was gone. She exhibited unbelievable bravery and courage, all while pregnant, then straddled with a newborn, etc. She has my utmost respect; I feel most anyone else may well have "blown it" and been unable to adapt and flex so quickly to avoid annihilation. Though I guess none of us knows how we might handle such extreme situations until we are there. 

2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?
I wonder what Antonina might have done with her life if she hadn't married Jan. But since she was the "wife of a zookeeper," her days were never dull! She was constantly overseeing the care and nurturing of all the animals, large and small, with a menagerie living with them in the villa. In addition, she ran the household and had her own child/children to raise. As was typical in this time period, society defined her by her role of wife, and I don't believe she resented this overall, though she did feel defeated that Jan didn't publicly acknowledge her accomplishments. She certainly proved many times over she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and others! She certainly did much more than just serve as a "housewife," in my opinion!  

Check out the other bloggers' reviews as well: 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Kay of whatmeread


Please plan to join us for our next read, The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness.

Reviews to be posted the first Monday in June.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Classics Club #5 The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger by Albert Camus

This is the book I read as the Classics Club Spin #5 as selected on Monday, February 10. And, I'm rather excited that I was able to have read it by April 2, unfortunately I lacked the necessary time to complete the posting! Oh well...life happens sometimes!


I had mentioned I was a bit intimidated by this book for many reasons, though it was not all that intimidating for me in the actual reading! (That is usually how it works it, is it not? The anticipation can be so much more intimidating than the reality of the action...) The picture to the left depicts the cover of the edition I read (Vintage Books Edition, September 1954). My initial reaction to this picture was "Huh?" I had no idea how this picture could connect to a story of one man shooting another. However, having completed reading it, I immediately decided this is one of the most "bizarre" literary reads I have encountered. And I was able to make my own connection; to me the cover represents this bizarre "joker-like" collection of people with little to no real personal connections among them. There appeared to be no apparent reason or rationale behind the characters' actions or behaviors. One parallel for me: Meursault reminded me so much of Nick Carraway (the narrator) from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Nick, Meursault is quite the "gutless wonder" in that he appears to just follow anybody anywhere and never has an independent thought, or action/behavior, that is truly his own. Several reviewers call Nick an "unreliable narrator," but I consider him to be an idiot who just follows along...always! As I felt about Meursault...

For example, Raymond, a neighbor in his apartment building, who has a terrible reputation and is rumored to be a pimp, suddenly befriends him and asks for his help to lure his mistress back to him so he can beat her up one final last time as payback for her cheating on him. Now most thinking people would at least question Raymond as to his desire to beat on a woman, etc., but no, not Meursault! Having himself heard the violence as Raymond beat on his mistress in the building and chosen not to report it, Meursault agrees to become Raymond's friend and participate in his scheme. At this point I'm thinking "What are you thinking?!? Anyone with a brain would turn and walk away from this guy as fast as possible!" He is mean and brutal--nothing but trouble! And consider the consequences that might result from aligning yourself with this "joker"! (Refer back to cover image above! :))

But not Meursault! He does whatever Raymond wants him to do, as in fighting the "Arabs." This group includes Raymond's mistress's brother. I felt Camus persisted throughout the book to refer to "Arabs" without ever naming any individual within that group as a reflection of rampant prejudice, discrimination, and even hatred, as being evidenced by the violence and cruelty exhibited by Hitler's Nazi regime toward Jews and other "ethnic" groups at the time. It is this unprecedented slaughter that encouraged Camus and other philosophers at the time to believe there was "no purpose or discernible meaning" to mankind's existence in the world. As Meursault watches the sky from his prison cell he thinks: 
     "...for the first time,...I laid my heart open to the benign      
     indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, 
     so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been happy, and that I 
     was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less 
     lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my 
     execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that 
     they should greet me with howls of execration." 
This represents Meursault's "coming to grips" with the idea of his impending doom, in my opinion.

And exactly how did Meursault become a "doomed man"? That, in and of itself is quite "bizarre" and would require much space to describe. Suffice it to say that he inadvertently (or not) shot and killed one of the "Arabs" and his case was tried immediately preceding a case of parricide (a father accused of killing his own son), to which the prosecutor linked his crime! (I did mention "bizarre," didn't I?) Final verdict? Meursault is sentenced to death...by guillotine! 

I was glad to find SparkNote's analyses noted Camus believed his "absurdist philosophy implies that moral orders have no natural or rational basis" in humanity. (By the way, I gave myself points for having used the word "bizarre" to describe this book...after all, Merriam-Webster lists bizarre and absurd as first synonyms! Self-congratulations were appropriately meted out at that point!) I would disagree with Camus to this extent; if humanity overall has no natural inclination toward morality and ethical behavior, why exactly are we put upon this earth? Perhaps to "learn" such behaviors? I don't believe any one person KNOWS, but it is interesting to consider. Personally, I believe we do reincarnate throughout lifetimes with the overall goal of perfecting our soul. This philosophy gives me unending hope for myself, as well as all mankind, and that is what matters most to me. 

SparkNotes states that Camus did not approach the world with "moral indifference," rather "he believed that life's lack of a 'higher' meaning should not necessarily lead one to despair. On the contrary, [he] was a 'persistent humanist' noted for his faith in man's dignity in the face of what he saw as a cold, indifferent universe." I would definitely agree with this; I feel it is humanity's "calling" to deal with daily life to the very best of our ability. I do not believe this requires any belief system including a deity or deities/gods, nor a rigid structure, but simply attention to our daily interactions, with 'purposeful positivism' (I just conjured this term or perhaps simply remembered it from elsewhere!) as expressed through mutual respect, acceptance, kindness, appreciation, and unconditional positive regard for all beings. Such a philosophy for daily living requires much "living in the NOW," and attention to our attitudes and intentions, which spread either positive or negative energy throughout the Universe, and it is the Universal energy flow which determines alignment or disjointedness. Not sure that was exactly Camus' belief, but it is mine and I feel it aligns with his philosophy to a great extent. 


I am very glad I took the time to read this classic work and did a bit of research into Camus' philosophy. It never hurts to have a bit better understanding...of...well, anything, really! What have you read recently, or long ago, that impacted your philosophical understanding of life? And doesn't everything we read do that to some extent?