Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a “Monster Classic” each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn’t so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I’m no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I’m after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann’s reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I’ve sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war – the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the “Greatest Generation” united as Allies – with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation — how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer’s proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer’s interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer’s characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today’s socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians’ idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history – this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer’s skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler’s conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany’s feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler’s increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm’s length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

The Journal of Hélène BerrThe Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“…I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.

Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.

Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins. She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature. Hélène is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends; she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian cafés.

But she is a Jew. It is Occupied Paris, 1942. And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure: rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real-time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition.

The obvious comparison to Hélène’s journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom. For the reader, this holds a particular pain: we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family’s country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats. Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England. I whisper “Run, run, Hélène, run while there is still time.”

Hélène’s journal from April – November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends. The most unspeakable happens – her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city. Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that Hélène falls silent, for nearly a year.

It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman. The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:

‘So why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say “Excuse me, miss” when they pass in front? Why? Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality.
There is also the possibility that they do not know everything. The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.

Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.

Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène’s true love, Jean Morawiecki. The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim. The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris’s Marais district.

Hélène is an extraordinary writer – she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar. Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget
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Book Review: Trapeze by Simon Mawer

TrapezeTrapeze by Simon Mawer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to read a simple blurb of Simon Mawer’s Trapeze – at the height of World War II, a young English-French woman trains as a spy and is dropped into Occupied France to aid the French Resistance – you might think you hold an espionage-adventure in your hands. Which, in fact, you do! But Mawer isn’t after writing a Robert Ludlum thriller. He offers us a subtle, mannered take on a well-worn theme: how war forces the most ordinary among us to behave in the most extraordinary ways.

With prose that is distant and spare, Mawer sets the tone of isolation experienced by his young protagonist, Marian Sutro, as she is recruited and trained by the little-known British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped by parachute into Southwestern France. Marian is determined to be of use and to succeed, but her motivations aren’t clear. From an upper-middle class family, she has been spared the worst of the war’s deprivations and has no family members in combat. Only memories of her teenage crush, a older French man who remains in Paris, tie her to her mother’s homeland. She is a restless and intelligent, but hardly strikes one as a tough, street smart spy.

And as it turns out, the SOE’s motives are even more shadowy. Of course, all spies are pawns. What makes Trapeze so unique – with its quiet suspense and undercurrent of dread – is how deeply Marian and the reader are drawn into the conspiracy, how inexorably Marian’s nature leads her to play precisely the role that has been created for her. And like most realistic portrayals of war, there are long stretches of lethargy, of waiting, followed by bursts of adrenalin, terror and split-second decisions that a spy’s highly-trained body and mind are designed to handle.

The brevity of Marian’s training is the only jarring note. Marian spends six weeks on an island off the coast of Scotland and emerges a lethal weapon. She becomes skilled in radio communication, ciphers, firearms, explosives, hand-to-hand combat — it’s a disbelief-suspending transformation from a soft, naïve girl into a trained assassin with the survival instincts of a fox and the killer reactions of a tiger. Trapeze is a based on the true story, so perhaps this short training period is accurate. It’s hard to imagine, really. But again, Mawer’s theme runs through: do any of us really know the depth of our own character – its weakness or its power – until we are faced with desperate times?

I made a comment the other day on Twitter that I felt “character-driven” to be one of the most useless descriptors of literary fiction. To my surprise, my off-hand remark was retweeted numerous times by writers and book fans. Apparently, my words touched nerve.

Had I more than 140 characters to express myself, I would asked: if one says a novel is character-driven, what is the alternative? What well-crafted story isn’t character driven? Story IS character, as much as it is plot- it is the behavior, action and reaction of the protagonist and ancillaries within and to their environment. A great story is one that wraps you in the characters’ world, whether that world is a disintegrating marriage or an exploding planet of some distant universe. Or the shadowed streets and freezing lofts of Occupied Paris.

What leads me to finally reject the notion of “character-driven” as reductive is Simon Mawer’s restrained Trapeze. The author does a superb job of taking fiction’s inextricably-linked elements – setting, plot, character, theme – and distilling them into the essence of a perfect story.

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The Prisoner’s Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that’s been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes.

The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I’ve known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman’s brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents’ wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We’ve visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing – we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner’s Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to “employ” the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner’s youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor’s edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.

Book Review: The O’Briens by Peter Behrens

The O'BriensThe O’Briens by Peter Behrens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would seem the greater the sweep of history encompassed by a novel, the more confined the writer. The facts of history are many and easily called out, the settings, characters and dialogue are well-defined by their eras and the more years a story covers, the shallower the characters can become as they are stretched and diluted by time.

It is, therefore, deeply satisfying to read a saga as intimate and profound as The O’Briens. Peter Behrens is a master of the art of storytelling. He understands the fine balance between enchanting prose and compelling facts.

The O’Briens begins deep in the pine forests of northern Quebec in 1887 and ends in a dinghy just off the Cape Breton coast in 1960. It follows the fortunes and tragedies of Joe O’Brien, the oldest of five siblings who lose first their father to the Boer War, then their mother to despair and disease. Joe, although taciturn and moody, is a natural leader with an affinity for numbers and an ambition that he uses to propel himself and his siblings out of Canada’s back country when he is barely a teenager. Fans of Peter Behrens will recognize the O’Brien determination from the author’s previous novel Law of Dreams, which tells the story of Joe’s grandfather, Fergus O’Brien, who escaped the famine in Ireland to immigrate to Canada two generations earlier.

Joe rushes across North America, from the forests of British Columbia to the beaches of Southern California and down to Mexico, building a fortune in railroad construction. In 1912, at a quiet real estate office in Venice Beach, Joe encounters a young French-American woman, Iseult Wilkins. Iseult has just buried her mother and she too is an orphan, as restless as Joe, yet constrained by her gender and limited financial resources.

Passion and recognition of kindred spirits bring Joe and Iseult to an altar within weeks of their first meeting. It is in depicting this marriage, an invisible ribbon that shreds to a breaking point by years of betrayal and grief and is knotted anew by tenderness and love, that Behrens reveals some of his greatest strengths as a writer. We come to know Joe and Iseult as much as they allow us to, their voices ringing true as they falter and succumb to their own vanities.

Other characters, such as Joe’s brother Grattan, his daughters Frankie and Margo and son Mike, are no less vivid for playing secondary roles. Their stories bring us directly into the emotional devastation of the men who fought in World War I and World War II and of the families left, waiting for the worst news.

Behrens is an atmospheric writer. His settings are vivid, his characters feel and react with tremendous emotion, his prose is rich and lambent. Yet his pacing is precise and brisk. He has such a great span of time to cover – one with many world-changing events – but he selects the most pivotal and delves deeply, showing his characters’ development by how they respond to their circumstances.

It was a difficult book to set aside each evening when I knew I had to stock up on sleep; I found myself longing for the free afternoon and early morning late in the week when I could be enfolded by Behrens’s story. This is a luminous read.

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Book Review: The Spanish Bow, Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Spanish BowThe Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, the treasures that await at Seattle’s “The Spanish Table” market, tucked underneath the Pike St. Hillclimb. Reflecting off the gleam of steel paella pans and bottles of port and Albarino, lining the way to the cheese and sausage cold case, are several rows of books: cookbooks from Spain and Portugal, travel books to illuminate the Santiago de Compostela, and works of fiction about Iberia or by authors who are connected to that peninsula so ripe with history and romance.

Enter “he Spanish Bow by the gorgeously-named Andromeda Romano-Lax. The eponymous bow is one of the few belongings a villager leaves to his children and wife – sent by post after his death in distant Cuba in 1898. Young Feliu Delargo is six at the time of his father’s death. He selects the bow from his father’s meager trove without understanding its use. Even after he begins violin lessons, he feels little more than rote interest in developing his musical aptitude.

Then a cellist visits his village, part of a trio featuring a famous pianist, Justo Al-Cerraz. From the first notes of the cello, Feliu is enchanted. His fate is sealed. What follows is a history of 20th century Spain, as lived through a struggling, then famous, musician. As a child, Feliu travels to Barcelona where he studies with a depressed but brilliant musician. He then comes of age in the fading glory of the Spanish court, befriending the Queen and learning to play duets by making love with an eccentric pianist, the daughter of his tutor.

As a young man Feliu again encounters the piano prodigy, Al-Cerraz. The two form a musical partnership that lasts decades. Music may be the central theme to the novel, but the partnership between Feliu and Al-Cerraz is the novel’s motif. The love-tolerance-mistrust-dependence that binds them mirrors how they feel about music, about Spain, and about Aviva, the beautiful Italian violinist who breaks their hearts. They cannot live apart from, yet are tormented by their love for each of these and for one another.

The novel has two distinct parts and feels. Feliu’s early years read like a fable, naively, almost as if the book were a translation. Once Feliu reaches adulthood and Europe plunges into World War I, the pace picks up and the tone matures and becomes more modern. It is somewhat disconcerting. Feliu as a character diminishes as the situation in Spain becomes more desperate. Other characters, most notably Al-Cerraz and Aviva, but also historical figures such as Picasso, Elgar, Weill and Goebbels are richly colored and have more immediacy.

Romano-Lax incorporates an astonishing degree of historical detail into The Spanish Bow. Feliu’s life is loosely based on that of the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals. The author clearly wanted to present a modern history of Spain in its entirety, using art and the pursuit of artistic independence and purity as a mirror to reflect Spain’s troubled quest for democracy. It’s impressive and engrossing, but the narrative does lose focus in this dogged commitment to history. Years are jumped over, Feliu’s rise to fame is foggy, Aviva- a Jew who lives in Berlin when she is not touring with Feliu and Al-Cerraz- has a storyline that begs better resolution. Too much time is given to Feliu’s touring and the daily drudgery of his life off the road- sections that could have been deleted in favor of a brisker plot and narrative momentum.

The Spanish Bow is a wonderful début by a devoted student of history, lover of music, and talented storyteller. Historical fiction lives and breathes with intelligence and passion under Ms. Romano-Lax’s pen. I see she has a new work debuting early 2012. It’s set in Italy, on the eve of World War II –  art, intrigue and the Third Reich. I can’t wait!

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Book Review: The Chateau, William Maxwell

The ChateauThe Chateau by William Maxwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a rare gem of a book. It is so perfect in its depiction of traveling and falling in love with another country that, not only would I not change a word, I found section after section I wanted to absorb into my skin. Although written sixty years ago and set just after World War II, the interactions and reactions of a young American couple with the French and in France remain relevant, painful, hilarious, and true.

Its peaceful pace belies the profound transformation of its principal characters, Harold and Barbara, and of the painful recent history from which the French were so eager to shake loose in the fragile years of the late 1940’s. It is counter to French nature to turn away from history and move on with assertive hope; Barbara and Harold arrive at the border just as France accepts that breaking the habit of reflection and debate and marching in concert with their European neighbors- including Germany- is the only way out of the post-war depression.

Whether or not it was the writer’s intention, Maxwell’s characters personify specific national characteristics or conditions that were present in France during this tender and uncertain time.

Mme Viénot is the face of dignity. She endeavors to preserve the gentility of the rapidly disappearing class of landed gentry. Hers is the eponymous château, which suffers the indignities of no hot water, no heat, and a larder limited by ration coupons. She is wily, a survivor, one foot trailing in the France’s past, the rest of her thrust forward, ready to grasp what she can to keep her home and legacy intact.

Eugène Boisgaillard encapsulates a nation emasculated by war, and its co-conspirators helplessness, guilt, and frustration. He runs hot and cold- a character you don’t trust and but somehow you come to understand. He is surely suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition not spoken of in a nation that had lost so many of its young men to war. He resents the vitality and hope of the American naïfs as he comes to terms with the loss of his gracious pre-war lifestyle.

Mme Straus-Muguet is a reminder that all is not as good as it seems in the land of your dreams. Pulling back the curtain of Emerald City to see an insignificant blunderbuss at the controls is a keen disappointment. But once you accept the flaws and the ordinariness of it all, you also begin to feel more at home.

Her awkward social status is also a painful but unspoken reminder that, although united during the war by hunger, fear, resistance, or mere survival, the different social classes would sort themselves out in peacetime. Peace means never having to say “I’m sorry,” to someone beneath your standing.

Sabine and Alix are the face of the new France: young, strong, independent women. Sabine is blazing her career path without the help of her connected family or a paramour; Alix is a busy mother in a passionate but difficult marriage with the mercurial Eugène. These women realize there is no time to stop and reflect on all that was lost in two generations of war; their lives are rich and full, the demands on their intelligence and heart too great to tarry.

It often feels that Harold and Barbara are more conduits than characters, particularly the winsome and vague Barbara. Harold works so hard to understand and to be understood, to fit in, get along, adapt; he wants desperately to be French, but understands that he is the quintessential American. The passages showing Harold falling helplessly in love with France, encountering the inexplicable and the maddening, and finally, saying goodbye to Paris are heart-wrenching to any one who has known and loved that beautiful, proud, contrary, gracious country.

The Château is a love letter to France, and an homage to the baffling, intoxicating experience of traveling abroad. It is also an astute portrayal of post World War II Europe, of a country that was on the losing side of the victorious.

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