Farewell, Shanghai - Angel Wagenstein I have been all over the map with this book. First of all, particularly in the first half of the book, I found the writing confusing. Here is an example of what you will have to contend with:

The days and months flowed by heavily and monotonously, with no news from Elisabeth (in contrast to normal prisons with legal regulations, here correspondence was forbidden), and the hour-long morning and evening roll-calls, always with the small three-times cursed pastry shop and the constantly perfected art of not stirring up in Hansi Steinbrenner the desire to hit you on the back with his club to the exact rhythm of the tango. (page 79)

This is one sentence, and it composes one paragraph. It is too long and parts are nonsensical I am not sure who is at fault, the author or the translator! There are numerous such sentences that make reading difficult, understanding compromised and enjoyment impossible.

Repeatedly words are placed in the wrong order, particularly adverbs. Sure, you do understand what is being said, but the natural flow of words is disrupted. For me, who particularly seeks a book that is well written, this detracts from the quality of the book. I am forced to only read this for “what happens”. The focus must be on the plot alone. So what is the book about? During the Second World War, when all countries were closing their doors to the Jews, the only place left for many was Shanghai. This book deals with life there in Shanghai, particularly the life of the Jewish émigrés. In 1937 the Japanese took control and soon the émigré Jews from Germany and Austria found themselves restricted to a ghetto in Hongku, a suburb of Shanghai. Life there was unimaginably horrible - overcrowded, rife with filth, vermin and disease. But Shanghai was a city of extremes. There too were found the luxurious quarters of the “International Concessions”. This book deals with life here in this city. This is interesting, and this is what kept me reading.

The author certainly incorporates humor into the book. Humor can be so varied; does this amuse you? Mr. Vincent (Vladek) has been summoned to the office of Lord Washburn. The lord’s secretary begins:

”Mister Vincent, it’s none of my business, but may I allow myself to draw your attention to the fact that Lord Washburn is not accustomed to a lack of punctuality on the part of his subordinates.”

Mr. Vincent was surprised in turn:

“Subordinates, did you say? Oh, subordinates! Look now, young lady, I am not a subordinate of the lord’s for three reasons. At least three! First, because I am not a soldier in Her Majesty’s colonial army, but a freelance journalist. Second, I‘m not an English subject, but through a lucky coincidence Swiss. And third, as a rule I subordinate myself to nothing and no one apart from the laws of my canton. They have their own state laws, in case you haven’t heard. “
(page 221)

The meeting continues:

“He ordered you to appear before him immediately! This, I hope, doesn’t violate the laws of your canton. And please keep it short because he has another meeting. “And the secretary in order to be convincing, looked at her watch again before ushering him into the office of the lord……..

The man who had just come in introduced himself cheerfully. “Jean Loup Vincent, sir. At your service!”

With the self-assurance of a general who doesn’t shake hands with lowly privates just like that, Lord Washburn declined the proffered hand. His own hands crossed behind his back, he looked with curiosity at the ragged Swiss with the unbuttoned shirt and rolled-up sleeves stopping with surprise at the latter’s enormous thick-soled boots.

Vladek followed his eyes and lent over to admire in turn his boots for a moment.

“Ah, my boots, great aren’t they? From the Spanish Republican Army. For two years I marched as a correspondent with them from Gibraltar to the Pyrenees and in spite of everything they are still like new! You’ll die laughing but during the bombing of Madrid—“

The lord interrupted him. “I have not invited you to tell me the story of your boots!”

“Oh really, then how can I be of use to you?”
(pages 222-223)

Often the humor is ironic in tone. After Pearl Harbor, the following is noted:

To believe that it was only Washington that had the bad habit of rejecting every piece of information contrary to its preconceptions about the world is more than naive. French nonchalance, which almost bordered on treason despite precise information gathered by agents about Hitler’s real plans, proves the point as well. No one’s lunch in Paris was spoiled even when reports started flowing in that suddenly thousands of German tourists were pouring into Luxembourg and spreading tents all along the French border. No one bothered to talk to even one of these German nature lovers and to inquire a bit further about what they were doing there and why they preferred border landscapes to all others. And what about sleepy head Moscow, carelessly ignoring intelligence from the Ramsay group, which together with other reliable sources in Europe, kept issuing warnings about impending German aggression against the Soviet Union?.......

But the Kremlin masters had their own views on the matter, preferring to contemplate their own navels rather than listen to unpleasant news.
(pages 242-243)

History is served with humor and irony. This I enjoy! At the same time I had a hard time understanding parts. Was it the writing or was it my stupidity? I do not know. The spy details left me confused. It is important to note that they play a significant role in the plot. Nowhere in the book’s description is it said that his is a spy novel. I personally do not enjoy spy intrigues. Please, do not consider this book if you do not like spy novels.

Finally, by the end of the novel, I grew to care for the principal characters. I did, but it certainly took a while and some of the plot twists are implausible. What happens to the principle protagonists is overblown, too exciting, too amazing and too melodramatic. The plot is made for the movies! Do you like that kind of book? I don’t, but maybe the book will fit you perfectly!

My last complaint is that there is an exceedingly short author’s note at the end. The story is based on true events and people, mixed with fiction. One character is a composite of several real people. I would have preferred a more detailed explanation of what was true and what was fiction.

Given my personal preferences, I cannot give this book more than two stars. If you are curious about Shanghai during the war, I would instead recommend Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl's Journey from Hitler's Hate to War-Torn China. Now that was my kind of book! My review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/98729481