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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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Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow, by George R.R. Martin

Not a lot for me to say about this book at the moment: I read it on holiday with small children so occasionally had divided attention, but I think I got the main points. Sansa’s married Tyrion – an interesting if unexpectedly natural development – putting paid to all the plans of various other people to help her escape from King’s Landing; Bran’s continuing his escape to the Wall and Jon’s continuing his trek from it (one of the best reader-realisation moments I’ve had so far); and people continually act for immediate good that ultimately leads to tangles in the long-term plans.

It is the first half of a longer book, which does affect some of the pacing, but a second volume included with this one would have been unwieldy in a number of ways, including pages. I am starting to feel like I need a diagram, and a differently structured diagram to the appendix, to keep track of both characters and their schemes. It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of who’s allied to whom and who wants what from whom and where all the different threads are going.

We don’t have a copy of the second volume yet, but we will do soon….

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Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room has an incredibly interesting concept. Jack has lived his entire life – five years – in one 12×12 room.  He and his mother are secluded and confined, but Jack is happy, because he’s never known anything different. But as you get more involved in the story, you realise just what is going on in Jack and Ma’s lives: Ma was kidnapped and is being held prisoner, and Jack is a product of that.

The book is divided into four sections. The first two sections are set (almost) entirely within Room – they’re a sweet but ultimately disturbing portrayal of Jack and Ma’s life: sweet because Jack and Ma clearly love each other, and Ma is doing everything she can to give Jack a “normal” upbringing, even given the constraints. Jack watches Dora the Explorer, and measures himself against the wall, and plays with his toys. Other than the fact that he doesn’t know that there is a world outside Room, he is a normal 5-year-old.

At the end of the first half, Jack and Ma escape, and it’s in the second half that things really start going off the rails. For all that Room was a dysfunctional situation, it was normal and functional within that situation.  Suddenly everything Jack has ever known is taken away and he is catapulted into a world that he thought was fictional until just a few weeks ago.

What interested me in the second half was not as much Jack and Ma’s reactions to being free – although I think they are incredibly believable. I was more interested in other people’s reactions: the reporters, implying that Ma was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome; Ma’s mother, who couldn’t believe that Jack didn’t have Legos, Jack’s aunt and uncle, who took Jack into a mall only a few weeks after the escape. It’s my old interest in assumptions: the things that we don’t realise that other people don’t know. It’s especially interesting with Jack, because he’s familiar with pop culture (they had a TV in Room)  but he’s not familiar with social conventions (like having to pay for things at a store).

It’s  a disturbing book, as any book about kidnapping, rape, etc., should be, but it’s definitely worth reading. Jack is a more reliable unreliable narrator than some: he doesn’t know what’s going on, but the reader usually does, with very little detective work. Ma is a good mother – one of the best in fiction – and incredibly sympathetic. By the end, you know that Ma and Jack are going to be fine (and the journey to fine is worth it).

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A Suitable Boy

My God, I love Vikram Seth’s writing. An Equal Music has been near the top of my “favourite books” list for ages, and often makes an appearance on my Desert Island list. A Suitable Boy may join it there.

I expected to like A Suitable Boy – besides Vikram Seth, it was recommended and loaned to me by someone whose opinion I trust and value. But I didn’t realise how absorbed in it I would become. I lived with those families while I was reading. I empathised with everyone (even Mrs Rupa Mehra, much as I wanted to strangle her at times). Once I reached the point where I had a handle on who was who, and who was connected to whom, there was very little that I wanted to do except find out what happened to them. And this was a little bit odd to me, because India doesn’t particularly interest me. I’ve never had a burning desire to go there, to learn Hindi or Urdu, to figure out the details of the caste system or the Raj. But after reading A Suitable Boy, I feel like I have a sense of India’s history – at least their colonial and post-Partition history. It’s kind of like Wild Swans in that way: Wild Swans gave me an incredible sense of 20th century China. I still don’t want to go there (although I wouldn’t say no), but I feel like I understand a little bit more about it.

It also helps me understand a little bit about one of my friends. A close friend of mine – one of my best friends since high school – is a first- generation Indian. Knowing her gave me a little bit of a basis for understanding the basics of the culture in A Suitable Boy,  and reading it gave me a bit more of a sense of what her family life (may) be like. I’m not saying that her life is exactly like that, of course, because I don’t know – but her family lived through that time period in India, and I know that at least some of the underlying attitudes are still similar.

There’s so much to say about this book that I hardly know where to start. I suppose the first place to start is the story. It’s not a “story” in that it doesn’t have a “plot” in the page-turner sense. It’s more of an exploration – an exploration of the family events in some interconnected characters with an integrated background of the political and national events of India after Partition (into majority-Hindu-India and majority-Muslim-Pakistan). The main “story” is about the attempts to find a “suitable boy” for the youngest daughter of one of the families, but the book incorporates many other stories: political stories, personal stories, professional stories. If I wanted to be all philosophical and stuff, I’d say it’s an exploration of what makes someone “suitable”: who decides what is suitable, and in what situations? What is suitable in one situation is not necessarily suitable in another. What makes one person suited to another is what makes them anathema to someone else – sometimes someone else closely connected. What makes someone suitable for his (or her) profession may be what makes them unsuitable for something else. And sometimes what you think is suitable in the short-term may turn out to be unsuitable in the long-term.  …..and now the word “suitable” and all related “suit-” based words look odd to me.

At the top, I mentioned Vikram Seth’s writing. He’s just amazing and captivating. He comes up with images that could be clichéd if anyone other than him used them, but when he does so, they are fresh and beautiful. The first one I noticed and marked – that sticks with me – is the image of 2s as “swan-like” – the exact quotation is something like “swan-like digits bumping into each other” (in the 2+2=4 idea). It makes me want to come up with creative images for all the other digits as well – and then personalities for the bigger, multi-digit numbers based on their digits’ images.

There are also just lines that make me giggle, like “Dipankar was fond of making remarks such as, ‘It is all the Void,’ at breakfast, thus casting a mystical aura over the scrambled eggs.”  Mystical scrambled eggs amuse me. Also the inherent humour and imperialist attitude (on the part of the character, clearly undercut) in something like this: “Twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound was infinitely more logical than four pice to the anna and sixteen annas to the rupee.”

He’s also got a nearly perfect sense of character. I knew I was going to love Lata near the beginning, and my identification with her was cemented with this line in chapter 3: “ ‘Oh, I love you too,” said Lata, stating a fact that was completely obvious to her and therefore should have been obvious to him.” That is so much how I feel sometimes about my emotions that it’s almost scary. And the rest of the book carried that identification through – caught between doing what she wants to do and fulfilling the expectations of her family, caught between doing what she longs to do and doing what she knows or believes will be best long-term, even if it means short-term pain.

Seth is also really, really good at educating without lecturing. There were parts of A Suitable Boy that reminded me of Tolstoy, in the almost info-dump “state of the world” descriptions. But where Tolstoy puts lectures in the mouths or minds of his characters, Seth uses his characters to show the lectures. It’s a subtle distinction – and other people might see it as just as intrusive as Tolstoy’s – but to me, the information sections seemed more organic. It made sense for the political minister to ponder the state of the country when he was one of the authors of the land reform bill (and when a Muslim friend of his would be most affected by it). It made sense for the participants at a Hindu festival, or a Muslim festival, to reflect on the meaning and motivations for the festival. It made sense for the older women – both Hindu and Muslim – to think back to the struggles for independence and the chaos surrounding Partition. It felt natural to the characters, in a way that Levin’s agricultural obsession and reflections on the life of the peasants (in Anna Karenina) didn’t always.

There’s so much in this book – so many issues that it deals with, so many personality types it covers, so much history that it incorporates. After finishing it, I just wanted to read it again. One of the cover blurbs says that “it will stay with you for the rest of your life” – and that’s not an exaggeration.

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The Viceroy’s Daughters, by Anne de Courcy

I found this book at the charity shop where I volunteer. It’s a great-looking book (or I wouldn’t have set it out on the shelves), and I am, of course, fascinated by the subject matter.  It’s not my entirely favourite time period – the girls were still quite young in the Edwardian era that is my twentieth century love, but I’m not opposed to the inter-war era except in a literary analysis way (….modernism).  The actual events of the time interest me to some degree, and these women were not influential, but involved in all of the headlines of the day. But more than that, the viceroy of the title is Lord Curzon, one of whose homes was Kedleston Hall. Kedleston is just a few miles from where my godmother lives, and was one of the first stately homes that I ever visited (and, of course, I’ve visited again many times). One of the highlights of a trip to Kedleston is seeing the Indian artifacts that George Curzon brought back from his time there (he’s considered one of the best viceroys), including the Peacock Dress, which was created for his wife, and his daughters’ mother, Mary.

I found the book surprisingly captivating, and kind of raced through it. I’m not sure why: I’m reading a few other books right now that I like better (namely, A Suitable Boy and The Music Instinct). But I couldn’t put this one down. It helped that it had relatively short chapters, especially approaching the end, so the commitment didn’t seem as intense, even if I would spend an hour at a time reading. But, like I say, there are books that I like better.

For one thing, the book is populated by some pretty horrible people. The sisters themselves are not great: regularly unfaithful to their husbands, or incredibly jealous of pretty much anyone especially her sisters, etc. And then there’s Oswald Mosley – known, apparently, as Tom. Seriously, what was his deal? He is a horrible human being: fascist, friend of Hitler, rubs his wife’s nose in the fact that he has affairs even though he knows she doesn’t like it, sleeps with both his wife’s sisters, including a long-term affair with one (after his wife’s death, which is the only semi-redeeming factor there, but the sister was married herself, so not really redeeming at all), secretly marries a divorced woman (also a fascist and friend of Hitler) without telling his children and then cuts the children out of his life because he can’t be bothered with them anymore. And yet this man gets dozens of incredibly beautiful, sought-after women to sleep with him, gets a fair amount of political power (until, you know, people realize that he’s a fascist who sees himself as Supreme Leader)….he must have been incredibly charismatic.

And then there are the Windsors (the Duke and Duchess, formerly Edward VIII). Baba’s husband was one of the Duke’s closest friends, dating back to while he was still the Prince of Wales. And at the beginning, you can see why: they’re very close and true friends. But by the time he’s abdicated, the Duke has all but forgotten Fruity. Fruity is consistently one of the only ones who stands up for and follows the Duke – and the Duke and Duchess abandon him in France with the Germans approaching before the fall of Paris. And then wonder why he and Baba aren’t too fond of them anymore.

The book itself also has flaws. Some of the problem is that it’s not Georgiana. Amanda Foreman has, quite possibly, ruined me for any other biographers. Georgiana was so alive in that book, and everything else has paled in comparison (to the point where I almost don’t want to read Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Sisters because her Bess was so pale).  The Curzon sisters are fairly real in this book, but they’re not as real as Georgiana was to me.

There are also a few structural problems, at least for me. There are a few characters that are prominent near the beginning (like Gracie, their stepmother) who essentially disappear for the rest of the book. The children also suffer that fate: the Mosley children, who are such an important part of Irene’s life and the sisters’ relationship with Tom, are mentioned as they serve that relationship but Baba’s children are essentially forgotten about. The viceroy himself is hardly mentioned after his death: for a book called “The Viceroy’s Daughters” his influence on their later lives is not made entirely clear.

It’s also a very name-droppy book. To be fair, the sisters did move in some of the highest circles: the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, whatever) was a big part of their lives, as well as most of the socialites and celebrities of the day. But quite a lot of them were mentioned without having been introduced, with the assumption that of course we’ll know who they are and the associations with them. Wikipedia was my friend – somewhat. Like I said, I’m not completely versed in the inter-war period, so some of the gossipy stuff passed me by.

I can’t quite put my finger on what kept me intrigued in this book. It’s not bad, of course, and the time period can be fascinating. And there’s something almost reassuring about the continuity of celebrity obsession, and self-absorbed promiscuous celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous. It’s also interesting to turn celebrities into somewhat real people. Not entirely real people yet, but closer to real people.

 

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The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt

Part One: Reaction

I finally finished The Children’s Book. Saying “finally” makes it sound like it was a struggle, though, which the actual reading of it wasn’t. In fact, I would go so far as to call it “captivating” or “engrossing” – and that’s why it took me so long to read. It was not the kind of book that I wanted to read in short snatches. It’s a book that requires attention.

It’s also a book that requires research. I almost wish that I had read it on my Kindle, for two reasons. First, I made notes. I almost never write in books, but I found myself annotating this one. Of course, the problems with that are that, one, you’re writing in a book, and, two, you (I) can almost never find the notes again. Looking at it in hindsight, I should have invested in some Post-Its. Next time….

Second, I started needing to read it next to my computer. It would usually only take a few paragraphs – a few pages at the most – before there was something I needed to look up. A dictionary (I use the OED, because I am a pretentious dictionary snob) and Wikipedia (not an encyclopedic snob) were my constant companions. Also manybooks.net, by the end. My reading/rereading/research list has grown exponentially because of this book. I was already interested in the late Victorians/Edwardians because of Forster, but this book has only spurred me on.

It is an absolutely beautifully written book. The language is beautiful and the structure is beautiful. There are one or two places where Byatt almost seems to be showing off her vocabulary – I doubt Dobbin would have known the word “exiguous”, although one of the Wellwoods might have – but those moments were few. There were any number of sentences that I noted just to want to remember them, and only one that was incomprehensible.

I will say that I found it a bit hard at first to keep track of the characters and their connections, especially the various children. That’s true in real life when you meet a lot of people at once, though: it takes ages, at least for me, to match up personalities or faces with names. Once I got a handle on who was who, and who belonged to whom, I was fine.

It’s not an easy book to read, of course. It’s quite dense and full of information and ideas. But it’s absolutely worth it.

Part Two: Analysis

When I told people I was reading this book, the first question was usually “What’s it about?” That’s a really difficult question to answer for a book like this. Most people, when they ask “what’s it about” really mean “what happens?” If you had to summarize the book in a sentence or two, what would you say? On that level, it’s “about” a group of upper-middle-class families in the 1890s through World War I. But that doesn’t even come close to what this book is about.  It’s so thematically rich. It’s about artistry, education, family, secrets, the line between fact and fiction, relationships, the time period, social unrest from a privileged perspective, and, most of all, creation.

Creation is, in some ways, an obvious theme. Olive Wellwood is a writer, Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren are potters. Most of the adults are involved in creating things in some way, whether it’s writing or puppetry or the ideas involved in, say, the Fabian society, as well as the more basic creation of children. Even Prosper Cain, one of the more practical adults in the book, is involved in creating the Museum.

But even more than that, the telling of stories – the creation of stories such as, but not exclusively, fairy tales – is a major part of everyone’s lives. They’re more relevant, at least for a while, than reality. Certainly when they are revealed as stories instead of reality – Humphry’s revelation to Dorothy, the staging of Tom Underground, the theft and destruction of Tom Underground when Tom is at school – it is a shattering betrayal, worse than the betrayal of adultery or a simple lie. The stories shape the identity of the recipient as well as the creator, and then when that is taken away, identities are altered or destroyed altogether. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the book jumps forward from the ultimate story/reality betrayal – the breaking of a core created identity in the staging of Tom Underground – to World War I and the actual, physical destruction that accompanies it.

I could go on and on about the act of creation and the tension between reality and fancy/fiction (Dorothy is the most obvious manifestation of this, but Tom and Olive and Griselda also show it). I could also write an essay about fairy tales included within this book – but this is a blog post, not an academic essay.  (Seriously, the incidence of fairy tales is unbelievably huge.)

There’s also quite a lot in the book about love. Sex is present, but it is rarely described in connection with love. Love is, instead, a mental process, an ideal. Desire can be a part of love, but love can exist without desire and desire can exist without love.  (Connected with that, how creepy is Humphry? *shudder*)

And, of course, it’s a book very definitely set in its time. The founding of the V&A is a backdrop, of course, but the social ideas are a pivotal point. Dorothy wants to become a surgeon. Charles/Karl flirts with socialism and anarchism – his dual name even reflects his struggle between his upbringing/class and his ideals (even if the near-constant use of “Charles/Karl” got a bit annoying). Hedda becomes a suffragette. The families are almost all a part of the Fabian society. Class issues are discussed through Elsie, for one. In addition to exploring the philosophical ideas behind creating things, the book explores and instructs about the time period.

I’ll end this (brief) analysis with a quotation from the book. A group of the characters goes to Paris for the 1900 Exposition and Philip sees the work of Rodin for the first time. Here’s his reaction:

It was so strong that it would destroy him – how could he make little trellis-men and modest jars  in the face of this skilled whirlwind of making? And yet the contrary impulse was there, too. This was so good, the only response to it was to want to make something.

This is how I feel after finishing this book. It’s so good that I can’t write anything to compare to it. But its use of fairy tales makes me even more determined to get back to finishing my novel (which revolves around fairy tales). Its setting in the late Victorian/Edwardian era made me more determined to get back to Forster research (new book is out this weekend, I think!). Its conclusion in World War I made me even more interested in the events and writing around that time. I know I will never be able to write as well as Byatt, but I can’t not write after reading something like this.

 

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The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke is a fantastic children’s fantasy writer. The Inkheart trilogy was a fairly brilliant double story (the story in Inkheart and the story of Mo and his family), so I was expecting great things from The Thief Lord.

It’s not the tightest story in the world, but for some reason I couldn’t put it down. There are different threads that don’t always quite mesh together, but the kids – the main characters – are wonderful.  The fringe characters are a bit broad, almost to the point of caricature – which was distracting when the first character you really meet is a villain who is so unremittingly bad that I kept expecting her to be revealed as an literal witch or something like that (who then vanishes for most of the book, until she’s needed again to create tension).

Like I said above, there are different threads in the book. There’s the story of the two brothers, Prosper and Bo, who don’t want to be separated. Their thread runs through the whole book. It occasionally is more prominent than at other times, but it is always present. Then there is the story of the gang – a group of homeless, abandoned children (which sounds more pathetic than it is) who are led, in a way, by one who calls himself the Thief Lord. They in turn mix in with the thread of the magical merry-go-round, which is one of the turning points of the book but isn’t even mentioned until at least halfway through. There are also vague subsubthreads that feature the adults – the detective searching for the brothers and the fence who buys the children’s stolen goods. And Scipio, the Thief Lord, has his own thread that appears and weaves in about halfway through as well.

All the threads merge together by the end, sort of, but the book as a whole never quite gels properly – and I kept waiting for it to. The ideas are all there, and all interesting, but because there are so many of them, it bounces back and forth, and I was waiting for things to happen, things to get explained, or things to resolve that never quite did. I think it just suffers from too many stories to tell. The magical merry-go-round was kind of overkill. I know what she was trying to do with it, but I think that was the thread that, for me, pushed the story over the top. There was plenty to deal with in the stories of all the children, who had been abandoned in a variety of ways, without adding the merry-go-round to it, even if the merry-go-round is what tilted the world into fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I think the magical merry-go-round was a fantastic idea; I just think it was overkill in this particular book.

But, at the same time, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what would happen to the kids; if Prosper and Bo would be able to stay together; what the detective was going to do about them. It was a fairly quick read (it took me two days of inconsistent reading to get through – so only a couple of hours, really), and in general I like Cornelia Funke and whoever translates her from the German. It wasn’t as good as the Inkheart trilogy – especially not the first book – but it wasn’t a waste of time, either.

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