The Zookeeper’s Wife – Diane Ackerman

Posted 8 December, 2008 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 39 Comments

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Title: The Zookeeper’s Wife
Author: Diane Ackerman
Date Finished: Dec 7, 2008 #69
Published: 2007 Pages: 323
Rating: 3/5

From the back cover:
“After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these “guests,” and human names for the animals, it’s no wonder that the zoo’s code name because “The House Under a Crazy Star.”

More than the story of how the Zabinskis saved over three hundred people, The Zookeeper’s Wife is also a history of Warsaw during WWII, especially during Nazi occupation. Not only were the Jewish targeted during the occupation, but Hitler determine to rid the world of Poles–starting with Jews and Polish intellasia. Ackerman discusses the Polish Underground, which Jan Zabinski participated in extensively, and its efforts to find safe homes for thousands of people. The Zabinskis, along with many others, bravely sacrificed their comforts and safety for years to ensure that others also remained safe.

This book is our December book club read, and I had been looking forward to it for months. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in the book. Most times when I read an encounter of the war, I have a tough time even rating the book (and usually don’t), but there were some formatting issues that I had with this book. There is a wealth of information provided, and Ackerman has certainly done extensive research in order to write this book. But the way that the material was presented was choppy and at times even incoherent. For several chapters, it seemed that every paragraph dealt with a different subject, and it was difficult for me to keep track of what was going on and even what the current subject was. Ackerman often wandered onto tangents, and the purpose of the tangents were often unclear until later. The book flowed better when Ackerman focused on actual stories, but when talking about the war/events in general the organization was difficult to follow. The writing, however, is actually very lyrical and easy to read.

I hate to be so negative about the way this book was written because the material in the book itself is fascinating and the story of the Zabinskis is an amazing one. But even their story often took second place to other story lines. The paragraph I provided from the back cover suggests that the main focus will be how the Zabinskis hid so many people in the zoo, but aside from a few anecdotal stories and daily activities within the zoo and attached villa, I learned very little about how the Zabinskis hid and helped so many people.

But, so many other people have really loved this book–so please don’t make my review the deciding factor. Read theirs also: Corinne; Heather J.; Ramya; Fyrefly

39 Responses to “The Zookeeper’s Wife – Diane Ackerman”

  1. I think it is always good to have a different perspective on a book that a lot of people like. Thanks for the review.

  2. Different opinions are always great. When I tend to here tons of amazing stuff about a book I start to get skeptical. You don’t praise it like crazy, but you don’t bash it either!
    I want to read this because I love reading about WWII, but I’ll keep in mind your review when I do get a chance to have a gander at it!

  3. Your review is the first that I’ve read that didn’t sing it praises. I have had this book checked out from the library for about 6 weeks now. I really want to read it before the end of the year but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I love anything that has to do with WWII and have been looking forward to reading this one since I first heard of it.

  4. I really enjoyed the book, but I do agree that there isn’t a whole lot about how they hid the people in the zoo. I think I just enjoyed it as a WWII book because I like reading about that time period in general.

  5. I am interested in all things WWII area but I could not get into this book and stopped it somewhere in the middle. I just thought it was too above me , glad I’m not the only one that didnt enjoy it.

  6. verbatim

    Trish — I was waiting with bated breath for your review because my book club also chose this for December’s meeting, but we discussed it on Friday, alas, before your post. I agree with you completely about the choppiness (as did many in our club), and it really surprised me, because Ackerman’s “Natural History of the Senses” and “Whale by Moonlight” are two of my absolute favorite non-fiction books. This is the first time I can remember really having trouble keeping track of the timeline in a book, and I think it was because of the author’s tangents. I got the feeling that she had done so much research on this book and grew so close to Antonina that she tried to include everything, rather than exploring fewer areas in greater depth. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read it because I learned so much, and there are anecdotes I’ll never forget. I just hope those who read this as their first Ackerman book won’t be turned away from her other works, which I feel are much, much better.

  7. I reviewed this book in April, and I had many of the same problems with it as you did – not enough about the zoo, not enough cohesive narrative, etc. I’ve heard that her Natural History of the Senses is fantastic, though, so that one’s still on the wishlist.

  8. Hm, it sounds like this one might disappoint me, as I’m more interested in the zoo parts than the WWII history stuff. Maybe I’d be better off trying her Whale by Moonlight first.

  9. *Tricia – I always wonder with books like these if it is just my lack of attention in general, but lots of others really like it.

    *Steph – Definitely a great perspective on the war that I hadn’t read about before. For some reason I haven’t read a lot about Warsaw and Poland in general.

    *Natasha – It is a relatively quick read–I read most of it on Sunday and didn’t feel like I spent all day reading. I hope you like it!!

    *Alyce – Definitely a great look at what happened in Warsaw during the war!

    *Laura H – I didn’t feel like it was too above me, but I did feel that it could have been organized a little more accessibly. Definitely glad someone else feels the same way. Too bad because it is such a fascinating aspect of the war!

  10. *Verbatim – Ohhhh, I’m so glad to hear someone else agrees. I loved the anecdotes as well and wish there were more in the book. And I really hate to be all negative because there were so many good things in the book. It just wasn’t very well organized–and the timeline was impossible to follow, like you said. It will be interesting to see how everyone likes it when we meet for our book club on Wednesday.

    *Jeanette – It is a quick book to read and it is rather interesting. Just difficult to follow at times. Hope you like it!

    *Fyrefly – Not sure why my google reader didn’t pick up your review, but I’ll be sure to add it. Definitely not enough about the zoo. I loved all the other history in the book, but felt like I was deceived as to what the book was going to be about. I’ll keep her in mind for other NF books.

    *Bermuda – The way I look at it is that we all can’t love a book. :) I hope you do, though!!

    *Jeane – There were great tidbits about the zoo but not enough. And the animals were mostly gone in the first few months of the war (I won’t say anymore than that…)

    *Gautami – I like reading varied reviews as well–it helps keep things in perspective.

  11. *Verbatim and Laura H:

    I always mean to ask and always forget–do you have a blog that I can come visit you at?? Your profile doesn’t show a website.

    I’d love to come visit you!!

  12. too bad you didn’t like it better.. I really liked the book for the subject matter. I don’t remember the style of writing.. i went back to my post to see what i had written about that and guess i didnt really mention it. i wish i remembered the book a little more. could have had a nice discussion with ya.

  13. Trish, sorry this wasn’t a great read for you. I’ve seen some other reviews of it around lately. I think a book is taken differently by whoever reads it and you shouldn’t feel bad if it just isn’t your thing.

  14. Trish;
    Too bad you didn’t love it. I have this on the list to read, and have been so excited to read the story. It sounds so fascinating to me. I love reading anything about WWII.

  15. Sorry Trish no blog yet. I have thought about it but I dont know, some of you bloggers have gotten crap from authors about your reviews. I dont know if I want to deal with that. I love books and just want to talk about them. Love your blog though!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. Thank you Trish for your honest thoughts on this book. I have been contemplating a read of this soon, but was undecided mainly because I wanted to know beforehand whether the focus was more on the zoo itself or the war aspect. I think now that I will leave it on my TBR pile for awhile.

  17. That’s too bad. The subject matter does sound fascinating, but that kind of lack of cohesiveness tends to bother me a lot too. I will read those other reviews, though, so don’t worry about having made me decide not to read it :P

    The title reminds me of some really sad zoo scenes from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. They have to do with the bombing of Dresden. I had never considered what happens to zoo animals when a city is bombed until I read that book.

  18. verbatim

    I wish I had a blog, Trish, but I don’t, at least not yet. I really enjoy yours, though, because you read a wide variety and because if you recommend something, I usually like it, too. Thanks for your honest reviews — as long as one is not spiteful, I don’t see why readers would be offended by the truth.

  19. I’ve been thinking about reading this book, but yours is the second review that describes it as so-so, so perhaps I’ll reconsider. Thanks for your review.

  20. *Ramya – The subject matter was really amazing, but for having such a busy crazy month the writing style was too jumpy for me to ever really get into the book. Oh well!

    *Dar – You’re exactly right, and I try to keep that in mind. Sometimes it is disappointing to not love a book as much as everyone else does, though.

    *Michelle – There will be other war books, so I don’t feel too bad. This one does make me want to learn more about Poland, though. I didn’t realize until reading this book how little I know about its history!

    *Joy – It is an interesting book but the execution isn’t the best. I think it would be especially difficult to listen to, but I have a very short attention span.

    *Laura H – Oh no!! I haven’t had any crap from authors if that makes you feel better!! :) Well, if you ever do start a blog, please let me know! I’ve tried to come visit you a few times with no luck.

  21. *Joanne – I would say that most of the focus is on life in Warsaw during the war. There is very little about the actual war, rather more focus on the humans who remained behind in Poland. In that respect this book made for interesting reading (not very dry or boring), but I was disappointed about how little information there was about the zoo. There are a few stories and a lot of information about the Zabinskis, but not what I expected. I hope you’ll still read it, though.

    *Nymeth – Ackerman actually mentions the bombing of Dresden and the zoo, along with some of the other zoos in Germany. Sadly, many of the animals were gone by the time the war started–at least in Warsaw–it is very heartbreaking to see how they were affected along with everything/one else.

    *Verbatim – Well thank you. :) Please do let me know if you ever start up a blog. I remember being really frustrated one day when trying to see what you thought of Snow Crash (you had come by and mentioned you really liked it).

    *Charley – Personally, this wasn’t my favorite war or Holocaust book. I would really recommend The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom or even Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies. Although both of those are first hand accounts, so the feel is very different.

  22. I’m sorry you were disappointed in it, Trish. I thought the premise sounds quite interesting; I’m quite intrigued by the zoo part.

    Also, I think it’s good to hear some different perspectives from other readers. ;)

  23. I’ve heard conflicting viewpoints on this book before reading your review. I’m still planning on reading it eventually but I’m not in a hurry or anything. I thought it was a good and informative review :)

  24. Oh poop! I bought this at the last library sale I was to, and have really been looking forward to it. Not that I’m giving up on it, but I’m afraid I’ll have much the same reaction as you, as that’s the kind of thing that will bother me too. Thanks Trish!

  25. I am taking a reading break from this book to read your review! :) Yep–I definitely agree with you about the choppiness and like you said–maybe an outline would have been a good idea. I think it would be neat to have a pet badger that uses the bathroom on a training potty. I thought those were pretty mean animals, but apparently they can make good pets!

  26. Hi –

    I just discovered your blog. I love it! Would you mind if I put a link for your blog in mine? I’m brand new to blogging but loving it so far.

    Thank you –

    Sheery

  27. verbatim

    Just a correction, because I feel like a dope, getting the title wrong: Ackerman’s book I referred to is actually titled “The Moon by Whale Light.”

  28. i agree.. i don’t think it is easy to get any heavy reading done in nov and december.. there are so many other things to get done.. i finally finished my 5th book for the classics challenge..:) now, i have to just post my review and i’ll be done with challenges for this year!:)

  29. Well, I know how you feel about not liking something that everyone else does ;) For me, while I’ve read dozens of books about people INSIDE the ghetto, I appreciated looking at one about what everyone OUTSIDE was doing to help. Her style isn’t for everyone though – I’m surprised it never bothered me. Maybe since this is the 5th book of hers I’ve read, I’m used to it :)

  30. *Veens – I hope you really like this one! It is a really interesting book–especially about Poland.

    *Melody – The book itself wasn’t really disappointing, it was more the writing style. But this hasn’t bothered a lot of people, so hopefully it will work for you!

    *Serena – Great one for the challenge!! I’ve looked at the website and am really interested, but is it a perpetual challenge?

    *Sam – I hope you like the book. It seems that people are kind of half and half, but I have kind of a short attention span, so I chalk it up to that. :)

    *Debi – Give it a try anyway–there is definitely a wealth of really interesting information in the book that I’m glad I read about! Just very disjointed.

    *Laura – I didn’t know badgers would make good pets either! Have you looked at the pictures yet? There’s one of the badger on a leash–very funny.

  31. *Sara – I read The Book Thief earlier this year and really loved it! I’ve been passing around my copy so many times that I think I need another one!

    *Sherry – Of course I don’t mind! I hope you enjoy blogging!

    *Bookfool – Ah well. I hope you like it when you get to it!!

    *Verbatim – Thanks for the update–I’ve heard that her other works are better written than this one, so maybe I’ll try that one out.

    *Ramya – I’m so ready for the year to be over so that I can have some breathing time again! :) Awesome about the classics challenge! That reminds me that I need to get my last post up on the site!

    *Corinne – I’ve actually heard that her other books are not as difficult to follow–so I’ll have to try something else. It was really interesting to read about the efforts of those outside of the ghetto, but also fascinating to read about Poland–for some reason I haven’t read much about that particular part of Europe during the war.

  32. Sorry you had a hard time with this book. It sounds like a good one though, and I might read it for our WWII Challenge.

    I noticed Serena is MIA, so I’ll answer your question about our War Through the Generations challenge. The WWII Challenge is next year. After that, we’ll host a challenge on another war. Let me know if you have other questions!

    –Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric