Book Review: Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank

Title: Heidegger’s Glasses
Author: Thaisa Frank
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Counterpoint
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from publisher for book tour with TLC Book Tours
First line: In the ordinary winter of 1920, the philosopher Martin Heidegger saw his glasses and fell out of the familiar world.

Cover blurb: Heidegger’s Glasses opens during the end of World War II in a failing Germany coming apart at the seams. The Third Reich’s strong reliance on the occult and its obsession with the astral plane has led to the formation of an underground compound of scribes – translators responsible for answering letters written to those eventually killed in the concentration camps.

Into this covert compound comes a letter written by eminent philosopher Martin Heidegger to his optometrist, a man now lost in the dying thralls of Auschwitz. How will the scribes answer this letter? The presence of Heidegger’s words – one simple letter in a place filled with letters – sparks a series of events that will ultimately threaten the safety and well being of the entire compound.

Part love story, part thriller, part meditation on how the dead are remembered and history is presented, with threads of Heidegger’s philosophy woven throughout; the novel evocatively illustrates the Holocaust from an entirely original vantage point.

I normally write my own plot synopsis for a review, but this novel has such an original and unusual premise that I struggled for a long time, trying to boil it down to its essence. As I saw the date for this tour getting closer and closer on the calendar, I finally gave in and used the blurb on the back of the book.

I love historical fiction, and World War II is definitely the part of history I have read the most about, both fiction and non-fiction. Thaisa Frank has come up with a completely new take on the war, and that is a thrilling thing to find in a book. She deals with the realities of the war by putting her characters in a fictional compound full of multlingual Jewish scribes. The eclectic group of compound residents gives the novel some of its surreal humor, and also vividly illustrates the cost of war and the things people do to cope with times of extreme calamity.

Elie is in charge of the compound, which is under the jurisdiction of the SS. She does everything she can to keep the scribes healthy and fed, also spending time and energy helping other Jews escape the watchful eyes of the SS. The provisions she brings and the freedom she enjoys come with a steep cost, however, and she is constantly forced to give up pieces of her dignity and her self in order to help those she has taken under her wing. The relationship between Elie and Lodenstein, the SS officer in charge of the compound – an SS officer who hates the Nazis – is complex yet emotionally wrenching as the two find a measure of shelter in their love for each other.

Heidegger’s Glasses has a surreal quality that reminded me of the surrealist playwrights I studied as a theater major in university. The compound itself is a fantastical setting, and yet the idea of Hitler being so obsessed with the occult that he would make sure the dead’s letters were answered was just plausible enough that I had to do some research online to find out which parts of this novel were fictional. This novel made me think, especially about the papers – letters, books, journals – this blog – that I will be leaving behind when I pass from this world into the next. It has made me a little more conscious of the words I put down and the things I save, especially as I wish that my grandparents had left more of their own words behind.

Zoe wandered among throngs and hawkers and knew, as she’d never known before, that letters to the dead were for the living: They were justifications, records, appeasements, excuses, deceits, apologies, atonements, laments, confessions. They categorized. They beseeched. They invoked. Some told of unspeakable grief. Some tried to rewrite an entire history. And sometimes – more often than anyone could admit – even the most sophisticated letter writer imagined the dead could hear.

(An ARC of Heidegger’s Glasses was provided to me by the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it for this blog tour. Many of the links on this site are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on any of these and subsequently purchase anything, I will receive a small percentage in commission.)

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18 Responses to Book Review: Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank

  1. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads
    says:

    That is a different take on WWII. I’m not convinced it is for me, but I’ll keep my eye out for the book when I go to the library.

  2. heidenkind says:

    Yes, the letters and the relationship they symbolize to the dead is interesting. I interpreted it as the Nazis trying to soothe their own guilt over the dead. Also, I was in class today, and the teacher mentioned that memorials in the 19th century–like the Lincoln Memorial–were build because it was believed they would put the dead to rest. I think the letters to the dead in this book serve the same purpose–they’re sort of mini-memorials to the dead that the Reich doesn’t want to admit to.

  3. bedazzled says:

    The storyline sounds interesting.. Love story,a thriller and occult .. what’s not to love in this one!

  4. Ladybug says:

    I added this book to my wishlist yesterday after reading your review. It sounds like a book I might enjoy. Wonderful review!

  5. Kathleen says:

    This sounds different from anything I have read before and that intrigues me!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathleen – I know – with as much as we read, isn’t it fun to find something completely new and different?

  6. lisamm says:

    Fantastic review, Carrie! So interesting that it made you think about the legacy you leave behind- letters, journals, blogs.. I’ll remember to choose my words more carefully from now on too!

    Thank you so much for being on the tour. I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much.

  7. Pingback: Thaisa Frank, author of Heidegger’s Glasses, on tour November 2010 | TLC Book Tours

  8. Holly says:

    I have this in my stack. I can’t wait to get to it. Great review. It does sound good.

  9. Anna says:

    I loved this book! It also made me think about the things I save to remember. I’ll get a link to your review on War Through the Generations soon.

  10. Pingback: Heidegger’s Glasses « hardkover