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Monday, December 31, 2007

The Mascot by Mark Kurzem

On the last day of 2007, I find it fitting to recommend a truly astonishing book: The Mascot by Mark Kurzem.

To be honest, before I finished this book I was really lukewarm about the books I read in 2007. A few weeks ago I half-heartedly started collecting book recommendations from friends, but most just suggested one title or didn’t respond to my email. I didn’t mind so much because that’s how I felt about my year in reading: I read of lot of good books, but not a lot of great books.

I didn’t read most of the books that have made the Top 10 lists, such as the new one by Denis Johnson or Junot Diaz. I have Michael Chabon’s book on an alternative Jewish state in Alaska on my bookshelf, signed by the author but not yet opened.

In looking at the 35 books or so I have read this year, two stand out. I thoroughly enjoyed David Nasaw’s biography of William Randolph Hearst. It was an epic look at a fascinating man. Before I picked up The Chief, I thought I knew a lot about Hearst. I was wrong.

I also really liked Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. I loved her complex characterizations and interwoven stories, which were energized by a compelling mystery. This book isn’t for everyone, though. My husband loved it, but my daughter and a friend were mystified by my recommendation.

But The Mascot wins my book of the year award, not for the writing, but for the story. It is almost unbelievable.

The book tells the true story of Alex Kurzem, a 60ish Australian immigrant. When the book opens, Alex is starting to confront some uncomfortable memories about World War II. For most of his life, he has believed that he was the son of Russian pig farmers. Somehow, during the fighting in Latvia, he was separated from his family. Although he was only five years old, he managed to spend the winter wandering in the forests around his village.

Alex was finally rescued by a battalion of Latvian soldiers, who decided he made a great mascot. They dressed him in an SS uniform and took him around the countryside where they searched for “partisans.” (A euphemism for Jews.) The soliders thought Alex was their good luck charm. From a small age Alex witnessed the murder of hundreds of Jews at the hands of his protectors. He also experienced their kindness and love. He survived the war and emigrates to Australia with a Latvian Nazi family that had adopted him.

One day Alex shows up unexpectedly at the home of his son Mark, who is studying in Oxford, England. Unpleasant memories have started to intrude into Alex’s life and he asks his son for help discovering the source of the visions.

It turns out that Alex, was, in fact, a Jew who witnessed the slaughter of his mother and two younger siblings. Once he was rescued by the Latvian soldiers he had to hide his religion or face certain death.

The Mascot traces the journey Alex embarks on to discover who he is and where he came from. The central question is whether Alex was a victim of the Nazis or an accomplice to killing Jews. While he witnessed many massacres, he never participated in them Besides, he was younger than 10 and totally dependant on the soliders for survival.

I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust, but never one as strange and disturbing as this. It proves the old adage that life is stranger than fiction.

Other recommendations:

My friend and avid reader, Nancy Chirinos, sent me a list of her favorite reads of 2007:

Huck Finn--loved it
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
What is the Whatby Dave Eggers
The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
The Sea by John Banville
What the Dead Knowby Laura Lippman
Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Death in a Strange Country--Donna Leon
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (graphic novel)
The Girls who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Embers by Sandor Marai
Mary by Janice Cooke Newman
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugum
Ben in the World by Doris Lessing
Run byAnn Patchett
Lincoln's Sword by Douglas Wilson
Away byAmy Bloom--loved it

1 comment:

Chris said...

i just learned of kurzem's story today when i stumbled across the 60 Minutes article from February of this year...i was so stunned and moved, i had to blog about it here