Monday, October 5, 2015

The Lady from Zagreb

The Lady from Zagreb
© 2015 Phillip Kerr
432 pages

            Bernie Gunther was an ordinary police detective in wild, wonderful Weimar until Germany’s economy collapsed and fringe parties swept into power. His police department absorbed by the SS, he wears the uniform of a party and of an ideology he loathes – and does a poor job of even pretending to tolerate. His antipathy for the Party makes a man of Bernie’s talents a useful tool, however, at least to Joseph Goebbels. With no career prospects or political ambition, the detective can be hired for a little bit of innocent work that the master of deceit would prefer to keep concealed from his rivals in evil miniondom, like Himmler.  For instance, Goebbels has his eye on a certain starlet who is waffling on cinema as a career prospect, despite being a Siren-like beauty who is sure to become the continent’s most popular actress.  Officially, of course, the chief of propaganda wants to keep her engaged making films to glorify the fatherland,  but he also has more intimate engagements in mind – the kind that married men have no business in making.   The problem is that the poor dear is distracted by her long-missing father, lost in war-torn Yugoslavia. What he’d like for Gunther to do is pop down to the most hellish place in Europe short of Auschwitz for a spell, find dear old dad, and then report back to Berlin.

Nothing is ever so simple, of course. Gunther has already encountered some soul-harrowing scenes since the Nazis took power in 1933;  he has seen massacres on both the Soviet and Nazi sides of the battle-lines, and  been exposed to the Final Solution in action.  Yugoslavia, however, is a bloodbath to be endured only with the native whiskey,:Gunther’s report makes even Goebbels blanch at the horror of it.  There,  the princes of hell on earth decorate their strongholds with skulls on pikes, and photographs of executions, like something out of a nightmare.  The usual psychological defenses – sarcasm, booze, and cigarettes – don’t quite do the trick. To survive, Gunther counterattacks: he falls in love. If the hormone rush from becoming infatuated with Germany's foremost sex symbol doesn't do the trick, then perhaps the thrill of chasing a girl who is not only married, but a mistress-potential for one of the most powerful men in the reich will.  Eventually the action moves to Switzerland,  where Americans mistake Gunther for a German general and hilarity ensues. Amid even more death, however, the piece of a puzzle which has lingered on Gunther's mind for a year finally falls into place.

The Lady from Zagreb is a very well-done detective novel,  putting its wartime Europe setting to good effect and linking several mysteries together. The humor is biting, as ever;  on learning that a fellow officer is writing yet another novel, Gunther comments that there will always be room in Germany for more novels, provided his countrymen keep burning them. In an early scene, a man is literally killed by Hitler; a bust of Adolf is used  as a bludgeon. Against the backdrop of both the Holocaust and the obscene carnage of Yugoslavia, however, even that humor fails to prevent this from being an utterly distressing novel, set in a land of desecration and filled with horror and manipulation. Not even Gunther's relationship with Dalia is free from the cloud of horror, unsurprising given Goebbels' close presence.  Certainly there's no fault in creativity or research; the book is littered with odd little details that must have been strange research finds, like a U-boat parked on the autobahn; one of Gunther's escapes is especially captivating.  As thrilling as it is, Zagreb is more than touch dispiriting on the whole, however.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Man for All Seasons

"A Man For All Seasons"
© 1966 Robert Holt
163 pages

"...the king wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed."
"They seem odd alternatives, Secretary."

            The king wants a son, Sir Thomas – what are you going to do about it?   King Henry, eight of that name and possibly last of the Tudors,  has decided to change wives. His lawful queen, Catherine of Aragon, has so far only given him one long-lived child: a girl, utterly useless for succession purposes.   Convinced that his marriage is cursed, Henry seeks to have it declared null and void by the Pope, but said pontiff is unwilling. He already made special dispensation for Henry to marry his brother’s widow in the first place; now they want to him to un-dispensate?   Anxious to replace Catherine with a younger model, and in fear of dying without a proper heir, Henry decides to resolve the succession  problem via secession.   Assume leadership of the Church  in England, appoint someone pliable as archbishop, and hey presto, instant divorce.    Henry can do nearly what he wants; the Pope may object, but he is across the Channel, and even the Queen’s Hapsburg family doesn’t have the energy to invade England just for marriage counseling.  Henry intimidates both Parliament and the church into giving in, but still—there is an itch of sanction. The compliance of dogs is easy to find; they can be appeased with food or cowed with beatings, and dog-men abound here, epitomized in the person of Richard Rich   What Henry needs to sooth any lingering qualms that he is following the straight and narrow path is approval from a man of virtue and conscience – a man like his Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. But More cannot approve; he is a faithful husband and doting father to several daughters, and a good Catholic who finds Henry’s easy disposal of his wife and the Church’s authority to be utterly alarming.   Choosing discretion as the better part of valor,  More retires from the court in the wake of Henry’s break with the church, but Henry is not content. He and his minions want either More’s sanction, or his destruction.  “A Man for All Seasons” follows the king’s pursuit of More,  a path that ends only with the subject's martyrdom.   More never explicitly opposes the king’s behavior;  never writes a tract, never denounces him from the chair of office,  never even says a word to his wife.   His silence, however, is forbidding, and the king will not have it.  There can be no law in   England save the King’s – not even More’s private reign over his conscience.   The import of “A Man” is not lost centuries ever the times they portray, nor decades after the play was written. Its championing of conscience against coercion, of moral conviction against swaggering license, remain relevant so long as those in authority continue to pursue their every impulse,  dressing their wrath and lust for power in the clothes of law and demanding obedience. Sophie Scholl lost her head for the same reason More lost his;  they had a better one than the king’s.  More’s stand for conscience was such that the Church of England – which More opposed – hails him as a saint.  Truly he was as Holt describes him, a man for all seasons,  including ours.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables
© 1908 Lucy Maude Montgomery          
299 pages

 "Anne, are you killed?" shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. "Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you're killed.""No, Diana, I am not killed, but I think I am rendered unconscious.""Where?" sobbed Carrie Sloane. "Oh, where, Anne?

  Anne of Green Gables is chicken noodle soup bound in paper, the heartwarming story of a imaginative girl growing up on the Canadian frontier. Anne is every reader’s ideal companion; she is one of us.  Anne is not content to read good stories; hers is a boundless imagination  that makes the ordinary spectacular;  she names trees,  sees roads to Camelot in humble dirt lanes, and can convert anything into a sweeping story.  She is the embodiment of childish wonder and delight, who is rendered rapturous at the thought of learning about something new, or embarking on an adventure with a friend.  Though orphaned at an early age – she has no memory of her parents, and is adopted by a childless pair of siblings at the novel’s start – Anne’s imagination gives her access to a boundless well of enthusiasm. Although she crashes from misfortune to disaster, she never loses and hope and always gains a bit of character from the experience. Anne’s imagination is not limited to creating stories for she and her friends to act out (Tom Sawyer would be an interesting neighbor for her; what would happen if the rafts they set out on chanced to meet, and Anne’s Arthurian romance collided with Tim’s pirate ship?). Her head is filled with the language of books, and when she reacts she reveals a vocabulary filled gloriously with pomp.  It’s almost a disappointment when she becomes more level-headed assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, but all stories have their proper ending. For Anne, that usually involves hugs, tears, and speeches.   Green Gables is glorious fun;  I wish I’d paid more attention when watching the play in third grade, but I was fairly smitten by the  actress. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Saint Joan

Saint Joan
© 1924 George Bernard Shaw
160 pages

In the darkest hour of the Hundred Years War, a teenage girl re-inspired both a defeated nation and a despondent king to fight again for what was theirs. She -- Joan of Arc -- would be captured by her enemies and condemned a heretic by the English, but later vindicated by the Church. In 1920, in fact, Joan was pronounced a saint. Shaw's play no doubt follows on the heels of the news of her canonization.  Scoffing at saintly romanticization of the Maid, Shaw chose to pay tribute to her in his own way, making her an apostle of Whiggism.  “Saint Joan” pays tribute to the Maid’s time in the historical sun, relegating unpleasant battle-and-execution bits  to the background and focusing instead on her conflicts with the silly men she is forced to enlighten. Considering that the title character is burned alive, the play is far funnier than it has a right to be, from the opening scene with a duke arguing with his page almost to the end, where the man Joan made king is visited by the shades of his past after her vindication.   Shaw fills the play with modern conceits; his characters seem to wish they were living in the 1920s instead of the rotten ol’ middle ages. They even invent words like Protestant and Nationalism to describe how Joan makes them feel. 

Shaw’s Joan is more ambiguous than this, however; he endeavors to save her from beatification and her enemies from damnation in the same stroke.  Joan as written is not ‘saintly’ she is cheeky. Assuming familiarity with lords of the realm and lords of the church alike, she gives as good as she gets when they argue her down with reason, or scold her for acting so presumptuously. The irreverent, tomboyish Joan may be the star of the play, but her opponents are no villains. They may be guilty of pious fraud at times, but their arguments seem perfectly sensible, and prompt a reader to wonder just where Shaw’s sympathies lie.  When the churchmen accuse Joan’s patriotic  zeal of threatening to divide Christendom into nations and in so doing, dethrone Christ and allow the world to perish in a welter of war,  the graveyards of the Great War do not seem far removed from Shaw’s mind.  They are less villains than men moved to horror through fear, and happily ere the conclusion is reached they experience the genuine crisis of remorse, repenting in turn.  Although Shaw is just as guilty as having the Maid carry his own standard as any of the old romanticists,  “Saint Joan” succeeds in granting both her and her enemies humanity and redemption.

Forward March

This past week I've made further progress on the 2015 reading challenge:

Book on Bottom of To-Read Shelf:  The Search for Ice Age Americans

As many times as I walk past this book in the library, I've never broken down to give it a try -- until now. The Search  is a history of American archaeology, focusing specifically on the origins of the Clovis people.   Much of the work has been done by amateurs, literal cowboys stumbling upon finds in the wild. The book is principally about the people searching for Clovis, with little information on the culture other than their diet and some social speculation.

Book with Magic: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

I read The Two Towers back in high school, for reasons now lost to me. Why, I wonder, would someone disinterested in fantasy try the trilogy, and the middle part no less?   Last September I read The Fellowship of the Ring, however, and this time around the story made much more sense.   The Two Towers collects books "three and four" of the series,  where where the drama to come tremors the surface.  The fellowship of the first book is, like Gaul, divided into three parts: Frodo and Samwise are missing,  Merry and Pippin carted off by Orcs, and the non-hobbits desperately looking for their furry-footed friends.  The epic final battle between the forces of  good and evil is yet to come, but things are already in motion;  both parts of the fellowship move through war zones as orcs and men collide.  As the story unfolds, Tolkien's rich experience and creativity in philology are on display, treating readers with song and poetry from various cultures. One truly gets the sense when reading The Two Towers that another world is being stepped in to; one with a long, storied history that no character knows in full, but which everyone shares in part. This history makes itself known, a mountain of work casting a shadow across the landscape through which everyone moves, and to which their individual stories contribute.  I'm looking forward to the conclusion, which won't wait until next September.

What's next?  With October finally rolling around I can tackle Stephen King's Carrie, which will be a 'famous author's first book'; it seems like Halloween reading.  Before that I may try 'a book my mother loves'.   I'm going to be taking it easy with a 'trilogy' -- the two options I have in mind are both Star Trek series.  The big challenges ahead are the book with antonyms in the title, and a Pulitzer; so far, all the interesting winners I've found have been enormous.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Egyptians

The Egyptians
© 1997 Barbara Watterson
368 pages

"We stand where Caesar and Napoleon stood, and remember that fifty centuries look down upon us; where the Father of History came four hundred years before Caesar, and heard the tales that were to startle Pericles. A new perspective of time comes to us; two millenniums seem to fall out of the picture, and Caesar, Herodotus, and ourselves appear for a moment contemporary and modern before these tombs that were more ancient to them than the Greeks are to us. " (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage

The Egyptians surveys the entire course of Egyptian history, from ancient settlements to the 1990s, in a mere 300 pages. Were this not ambitious enough, Watterson does not limit herself to mere politics, but includes separate sections on religion, architecture, law, and economy.  The approach is reminiscent of Will Durant's symphonic history. Pyramid-like, The Egyptians is bottom-heavy:   two-thirds of the book is devoted to the ancients, with the Roman, Christian, Islamic, and modern periods sharing the last third together. The scale is immense, as it has been Egypt's fortune or misfortune to be an combatant or an object of interest to nearly every great power around the Mediterranean. Egypt's longevity is such that she has been conquered by two wholly different Persias, an epoch apart.  In the beginning Egypt was star of her own story, an insular union of two kingdoms fixed on the Nile; after outside invasion by the Hyksos, Egypt overcame her conquerors and became an empire in her own right. The land of the Nile would go the way of all empires, however, falling to Persia, then the Macedonians and their successors -- Rome, Constantinople, the caliphate, and Turkey. Through history Egypt has also been the plaything of other empires, like the French and British. Even Hitler attempted conquest, while trying to rescue Italian pretensions of a resurrected Rome.  Aside from a brief interlude during the Islamic civil wars, Egypt had to wait until the 20th century to be ruled by her own people again. Despite the generations of new reigning powers and the trauma they inflicted --  Ptolemies are utterly horrifying in their abuse, what with one king marrying his sister, then his niece, then murdering his own child and sending the body to his sister--wife to taunt her --  Egypt endures. Given the chaos of Egypt in recent years, such resilience is a hopeful sign.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

One by one

In the past few days I’ve knocked out several categories for the 2015 Reading Challenge, including:

A Book Older than 100 YearsBeowulf,   the story of a hero from another land who conquers a monster,  his mother , and his own fear of death against a horde-guarding dragon.  I used Seamus Heaney’s translation, which seemed to be the best judging by reviews, and found it far shorter than I expected.

A Book You Were Supposed to Read in High School:  Grendel is a mid-20th century retelling of Beowulf through the eyes of the fearsome beast our doughty Geat  rendered ‘armless.  This was assigned to me in 12th grade English, though we never read it because the teacher was a Guardsman and we were taught by a series of substitutes.  I never gave away the book, though, because I paid $12 for it, and when a book is assigned to me reading it becomes a point of honor. Anyhoo, Grendel was a curious choice for my teacher. As it turns out the fearsome beast is a teenager:   clumsy, chronically mired in an existential crisis, and fairly miserable on the whole.  Aside from a few philosophical conversations with the dragon, Grendel spends the book crashing through the woods, spying on the Danes, feeling sorry for himself, and occasionally screaming at the heavens. Though I endured this in the hope that Beowulf would show up and put him out of his misery, I must say the ending line did make me feel…almost sorry for him. Almost.

A Book Based on a Television Show: Star Trek: Foul Deeds Will Rise,  based heavily on “The Conscience of the King” and touching on another though to name it would give away  the whodunit.

A Book By an Author Who You Love, But Which You Haven’t Read:   Zebra Derby, Max Shulman. Yes, despite saying “anything by Asimov or Wendell Berry” for months now,  last night I spotted my copy of Max Shulman’s Large Economy Size and realized – hey, I’m awfully fond of Shulman, and I haven’t read the third novel in that collection, so why not?  It’s a short bit of postwar satire in which a returning soldier struggles to find his place in the new world. Through his misadventures Shulman pokes fun at door-to-door salesmen, Communists,   psychologists, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs . It’s not nearly as funny as the soldier’s previous misadventures (Barefoot Boy With Cheek), erring as it does on the side of randomness, but I still like Shulman. 

What's next? Probably either Book on the Bottom of Your To-Read List,  for which I have a nonfiction contender I've been meaning to read for several years now, but have never actually picked up, or A Book with Magic, as I'm  plodding through The Two Towers.   Sure, I could use a Narnia book for the magic, but scavenger hunts are no fun when there's no challenge.