Monthly Archives: October 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

Hitler was insane, irrational, and terrifying. What is possibly more terrifying is the way that no one really believed that he was any of the above things (much less all three) until it was too late to stop him without war. The few people who did realise, and who tried to warn others, were dismissed as insane or irrational themselves.

In the Garden of Beasts is about William Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin from 1933 – 1937. America was mired in isolationism, but Dodd wasn’t. He wasn’t a warmonger, but he knew that it would be impossible for the US to stay completely clear of international conflict, and he tried to portray that during his time in Berlin to both his fellow Americans and the Germans he encountered.

It’s also about his daughter Martha, who came to Berlin with him. (Dodd’s wife and their son were there, too, but not explored as characters at all; they’re essentially non-existent in the book.)Martha and her father both loved the idea of Germany and of Germans,  but Martha (unlike her father) went so far as to publicly admire the Nazis, at first. She recognized the steps that they’d made toward economic recovery and government stability. She even dated, semi-seriously, a leader of the Gestapo. Ultimately, of course, she realised that the extremists in the party weren’t the outliers – the moderates were. By then she’d fallen in love with an NKVD agent and was being considered for recruitment as a Soviet spy.

Culturally, there a lot of interesting things about this time period that feature in this book. The whitewashing that the Nazis did about their activities was kind of incredible: they would attack Americans (and others) who didn’t give the Hitler salute, for example. Official regulations said that foreigners didn’t have to salute, and that soldiers who attacked foreigners would be punished. But despite official reassurances from Hitler himself, nothing was ever done. Violence continued and escalated, and yet the embassy continued to believe the official line and wouldn’t even issue travel warnings.

Another point was the US’s refusal to officially denounce the treatment of the Jews iwoun Germany. Anti-Semitism was rife in the US itself, but also the US government was afraid that shining light on Germany’s racism would reflect back on itself and the treatment of African-Americans. How sick is that – the US government didn’t take steps that might have prevented war because they didn’t want to admit how horrible their own institutionalised, legally encoded racism was.

The Nazis got more and more chilling as the years went on, and that atmosphere was vivid in this book. Anyone might be watching or listening, even in the embassy or walking along the street or sitting in a cafe. It was kind of frustrating – and frightening – to pseudo-live through; again, I think Larson did a good job of making the reader realise what life was actually like, even for high-ranking, protected people like the Dodds.

So much has been written about the war itself that it’s kind of refreshing – although that’s too positive a word – to have some background of 1930s Germany. It’s fascinating to me how many of the pieces were in place even in 1933, but no one could see the whole picture yet. In hindsight, of course, we know that Hitler would stay in power even with a poor economy, that he would systematically destroy any opposition in the most brutal way, that he had the political and personal charisma to make people think they were doing the right thing.

It’s a rare talent to make historically documented events seem real and suspenseful. Ron Howard can do it as a director, and Erik Larson seems to be able to do it as an author. More please.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure

I miss Decorah. There’s a bit at the end of this book where they’re staying in Decorah (after seeing the Laura stuff at Burr Oak) and they stay at the Super 8 and go to Bookends and Beans – which isn’t named, but anyone who’s spent time in Decorah knows that’s where they went – and now I want a raspberry chai from Bookends and Beans and to wander through their carefully selected shelves where I always saw a book that I’d been craving. And then I’d take the chai and the book and go to Dunning’s Spring and read (if it were warm enough) or maybe up to campus and sit by Pioneer Memorial or up to Phelps Park or walk along the river….

Anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book. It helps that I’ve been to most of the sites myself, although a few of them I only have hazy memories of. I always enjoy books that reference places that are familiar to me, as long as they get the details right. (See also: Housewives Eating Bonbons, or whatever it’s called, also presumably set in Decorah, but an unrecognizable version of it, and if you’re going to change such an important feature of the town as the college that has been there since 1861 – just change the name of the town already.)

If you don’t know, this is a book about one woman’s journey around the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, in an emotional search for “Laura World” – the sense of recapturing the world of the series as she experienced it when she was a child. It’s not a particularly calculated journey. She didn’t set out to write a book or a travel guide about the Laura sites. And I like that. There are plenty of books out there that serve that function. This is much more personal. It’s about the journey, the exploration, and in some ways the pilgrimage aspect. She’s trying to recapture her childhood connection with Laura and her old sense of the world Laura lived in. The book doesn’t really try to evoke that world – although there is some of that – as much as it does her reaction to that world, or what is left of it, and trying to fit Laura into her adult urban life.

And I think she’s pretty successful at it. She discovers along the way what she needs Laura to be – an example of girlhood and exploration – amd what she doesn’t – a lifestyle example to help prepare for the End Times. She meets some interesting people, in both good and bad ways, and learns how to do quite a lot – cooking some of the Little House recipes, twisting hay, surviving a Midwestern thunderstorm.

The only thing I didn’t like was a vague sense of condescension to the more rural people that she met and some of the small town things she experienced. It wasn’t really explicit, but I got a feeling that she saw small towns in the Midwest as a kind of foreign country and “oh, aren’t their customs quaint and cute!” That could just be oversensitivity on my part, though, seeing as I grew up in small Midwetern towns – large by local standards but smaller than the university where I did my MA.

The main thing that I came away from this book with was a desire to reread the entire Little House series. It’s been years since I’ve read them. I also want to give them to some young girls I know. I think they’re at the right age to start them, and one of them at least will get a kick out of the history of it all.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (Other)

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

Some authors have certain themes that they come back to, over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Some themes, some concerns, are important enough to come back to. Body image, bullying, mental illness – these are all important things to explore on a regular basis. Best Friends Forever does that, to some extent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it completely successfully for me.

Part of my problem may be my own high school experience.  I wasn’t bullied, per se, much – that had come in middle school, before we moved – but I was certainly not part of the “popular” group (meaning cheerleaders, athletes, the well-dressed, the apparently socially well-adjusted). I had my own (divided) circle of friends, and ultimately became the happy, functioning adult that I am today. (hahahahahahahaha)

What I have noticed, since high school, is that very few of my classmates still remember or care who was “popular” or who wasn’t in high school. When I go back to my hometown and run into someone I was in high school with, they usually greet me with enthusiasm and recognition, whether we spoke to each other in high school or not. This is even true with the bullies – several years after we’d moved, I ran across one of the girls who’d been one of my worst tormenters in middle school. This girl was one of the reasons that I had literally no friends during fifth grade. She had been one of the organisers of the physical and emotional abuse that I underwent on a daily basis. (She wasn’t the one who’d audibly cheered when she learned I was leaving the school district; that was her best friend.)  But even just a few years afterwards, this girl greeted me as though nothing had ever happened between us. As one of my friends wrote in our graduation issue newspaper – high school doesn’t matter after high school.

So I don’t completely understand the world that Best Friends Forever is set in – a world where neither the bullies nor the bullied have moved on in twenty years. I understand where the main character is coming from – her school life was absolutely horrible, my fifth-grade year multiplied by every other year – but  I don’t understand the way that her bullies have not let up on her.

There were so many frustrating things about the main character to me. I empathised with her, but I got frustrated. I got frustrated with the obliviousness to the relatively severe social anxiety disorder she was clearly experiencing, as well as everyone else’s obliviousness to her mental disorders in high school. She was secretly binge eating, like, every night, and no one picked up on this, or thought, “Hmm, maybe she needs medical intervention?”

Mostly, though, I got frustrated with her “friendship” with her high school best friend. This girl essentially betrays her in high school (although in a fairly understandable way, given a lot of other circumstances), calls her to help cover up a potential murder, and generally acts like a controlling psychotic bitch. And the main character lets her. There is nothing good about this friendship. There is no reason, other than desperation, for this friendship to exist.  And that is frustrating for me.

I would have enjoyed this book more if either of the main female characters had undergone any sort of growth, any sort of recognition of and dealing with the past. And I don’t feel like they did, really. I mean,  there was a lot of discussion of the past – quite a lot of the book is flashback/backstory. But they didn’t seem to move on a lot from the past, and that was disturbing to me.

To get back to my first paragraph, Jennifer Weiner’s first book, Good in Bed, deals with some of the same issues: especially body image. And I enjoyed Good in Bed a lot. I wish I had enjoyed this more.

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Filed under General Fiction

Thoughts on reading and friendship

I read a lot of blogs. News blogs, celebrity blogs (for a certain definition of celebrity – mostly authors, as I look at my RSS feed), publishing blogs, a couple of cooking blogs….  Sometimes links in those blogs lead me to other blogs that I then subscribe to (although sometimes I go through a decluttering phase and the new subscriptions fall prey to my service industry, shift-based job). And sometimes things in those blogs lead me to consider things that are not the point of the blog at all.

Which is a long-winded way of leading up to this blog post, which caused me not to think about the different types of friendship, but the ancillary mentioned that “women who love books…are especially prone to close friendships with women because there is an obvious subject to talk about: books.”

I cry foul. And not just because, as Rachel points out very well, books are not the only shared interest that can lead to extended conversation and eventual friendship. I cry foul because books are not an automatic point of common interest, even when both people love books and reading.

True story: I met a new colleague one year while teaching abroad. We shared our love of reading. She asked what my favourite books were, and I listed a few of my all-time favourites (Room with a View, Rilla of Ingleside, Outlaws of Sherwood, etc.). She’d never heard of any of them. I asked hers. “The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks,” she said. “Because it’s just so well-written.” That was my first clue that we were going to have nothing in common. (We didn’t.)

I attended a seminar during my Master’s  about writing CVs. The instructor suggested that, when describing interests, you should avoid saying things like “I like reading” and “I like music” because the categories are too broad. I don’t know how effective it is on CVs to say “I like historical biography and classical music” but at least it gives more of a sense of the applicant’s personality and tastes.

Because that’s the thing about books (and music) that is not as true about, say, knitting or even cooking. The categories are too wide to give any sense of what the person actually enjoys. Someone who reads exclusively non-fiction and someone who reads exclusively Mills and Boon (Harlequin) are not going to have a lot to talk about – even though both of them would describe themselves as readers and probably as people who love books and reading.

Friendships – any sort of relationships – have to be built on points of commonality. The two people involved don’t have to have everything in common, of course: how boring is it to have a conversation about books that goes, “I loved that book!” “Me too!” “And this one!” “Me too!” “And … now what do we talk about?” But just saying “I love books!” isn’t enough of a commonalit y to build a conversation on, much less a relationship.

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The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price

This one I found at the charity shop. The back-of-book blurb sounded interesting, and as I’d just finished Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, I was in the mood for something similar.

The Sterkarm Handshake is not similar. I was expecting humour and puns and satire. What I got insetad was an amazing depiction of culture shock, sixteenth-versus-21st-century morality, and how different basic assumptions can lead to massive miscommunication.

The basic story is that scientists working for a private foundation in the 21st century have created a “Time Tube” – time travel handwaved through the multiverse explanation, and the exact physics are not necessary or mentioned again – leading to various points in history. Usually points without pollution, with genetic diversity among plants and animals, with vast reserves, as yet untapped, of oil and coal. You may be able to see where this is going.

The Sterkarm Handshake deals with one of the projects – The Sixteenth – which leaves the Time Tube in sixteenth century Scottish border lands. They send scouts and liasons through, including one, Andrea Mitchell, who is a historian and expert in the time. She lives with the local clan, the Sterkarms, and has fallen in love with Per, the son of the leader. She is the translator and liason between the 16th and the 21st – but that doesn’t prevent her from completely misunderstanding how the Sterkarms live and how the 21st century company is going to deal with them.

I thought the counterpoints between the ordinary violence of the Sterkarms (completely incomprehensible to those from the 21st century) and the ordinary violence of the 21st century corporation (completely incomprehensible to the Sterkarms) were really well-done. The portrayal of the complete and total misunderstanding, especially on the part of the 21st century people, is also incredibly well realised: the “modern” people just don’t have a clue that, or why, the Sterkarms wouldn’t be totally thrilled about getting all the modern conveniences.

The one thing that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this could be my own reading, as it came right about the point when I’d taken a brief break from the book, was Andrea’s shift from being essentially part of the Sterkarms to what seems like essentially part of the 21st. It seemed very abrupt to me, and I almost got mental whiplash from her justifications for betraying each side. Don’t get me wrong, I identified very strongly with Andrea and thought, overall, that she was very well drawn, but her switch was a little bit too quick and out-of-the-blue for me.

I just looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that there’s a sequel. If I can find it, I wouldn’t mind reading it.

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Filed under Fantasy