Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book: The Bat by Jo Nesbo

OK, so I kept seeing books by this Norwegian author and finally read one, and it was the first in a series about Harry Hole, another roguish cop / detective. Somewhat inexplicably, he is in Australia hanging around with Australian law enforcement because a Norwegian woman was murdered in Sydney. This circumstance gives the author a chance to show off some Aboriginal culture / history / myths.

It's an OK zuzu book but nothing extraordinary. Does the murder get solved? Is Harry a stalwart, play-by-the rules guy? Is there a love interest? Is there a truly evil bad person?

I won't rush to the library and get more of Nesbo's books, but probably will read a few more eventually.

Stieg Larsson's books were better written and much more interesting.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book: Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding

The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Commandant of Auschwitz

I found this a captivating account of two men. Rudolf Hoss was indeed the commandant of Auschwitz. (Just to avoid confusion, there was also a man named Rudolf Hess who was Hitler's secretary. )

Hanns Alexander grew up in an affluent German Jewish family, a family who came to understand fairly early that they would not be safe if they stayed in Berlin. One by one, the sisters, father, brothers and then mother fled to England, leaving a city and home they loved. As early as 1933, Hanns' father was told his twin boys would be no longer allowed in the school they attended. "He was told that the recent passage of the Law Against the Overcrowding of German Schools and Universities imposed strict limits on the number of Jewish students at any given institution…"

Rudolf's childhood was not as idyllic. His family was not wealthy, and he did he have the educational opportunities that Hanns had.  His father was a "fanatic and a bigot, and whom he therefore feared and despised, and [he had] a distant mother, who was either taking care of his two small sisters or in bed recuperating from some sickness." His father died at age 40, and Rudolf joined the army when he was 14 years old. He fought, came home, worked on a farm, married and had children….and unfortunately met Heinrich Himmler. He writes, "I was planning to leave active service after the war, and work the farm. After long consideration and much doubt, weighing up the pros and cons, I decided to join the active SS." And from there, as he was a capable, steady, efficient worker, he was often promoted and eventually became the commandant at Auschwitz. There he, his wife and five children lived in a lovely home, furnished with "artwork and tapestries stolen from the Jewish prisoners."  He explained to his wife,  as Himmler had explained to him that "the Jews were a threat to civilization, that they must be exterminated, and if the Reichsfuhrer had ordered it, then it must be done."

The author alternates chapters paralleling the lives of Rudolf and Hanns. What made this such an intriguing book was the way rather ordinary men became extraordinary. I had the unsettling impression that Rudolf became entrenched in evil in spite of himself. He got caught up in the rhetoric, in his admiration for those who promised a better life for Germans, in the recognition he received for doing a good job, in wanting privileges for himself and his family….While most of us will not ever be able to understand the Holocaust, a book like this sheds some light on the process whereby men and women became seduced by Hitler and his ideals and ideas.

Rudolf's life ended when he was hanged "from a wooden gallows with a trapdoor a few steps from the old crematorium in Auschwitz, two hundred feet from the villa where Rudolf and his family used to live." He wrote a last letter to his children. To his oldest son, Klaus, he writes:

"Klaus, my dear boy! …Become a person who lets himself be guided primarily by warmth and humanity. Learn to think and to judge for yourself, responsibly. Don't accept everything without criticism and as absolutely tree. Learn from life."

He exhorts them over and over to take care of their Mummy….

As so many Nazis did, Rudolf also argued he was only following orders….

In Britain, Hanns joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps "which had been created…to make use of men who were refugees from Germany…who wanted to fight Hitler…If caught by the Reich, they would be viewed as traitors and shot. Yet, of the more than 70,000 German and Austrian refugees who landed in Britain between 1933 and 1939, approximately one in seven enlisted with the Pioneers."

On May 12, 1945 he was at Belsen: "Hanns carried hundreds of bodies to a mass grave. Back and forth he went all day…They then moved on to the next mass grave, until that too was full, and so they continued until the grounds had been cleared."

Hanns then became a member of the War Crimes Investigation Team and in that capacity, he hunts high-ranking Nazis who were directly responsible for the atrocities in the concentration camps. And he finds Rudolf Hoss.

The book describes the early years of these two men in fluid and easy prose, immersing the reader in their lives, common at first but increasingly complex as Hitler gains power. They become more than names from history; they become very real human beings who move in different trajectories. And that was the fascination…the events and influences brought to bear on a life like Rudolf's which resulted in his acquiescence to evil and then the questions about ourselves, our leaders, our responses to power, our responsibilities to others.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book: Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner

Barbara Kingsolver calls this "An Astonishing Book" and I agree. It is one of the best books I've read this year.

It takes place in Alaska. Abe is the father of Jerry, Iris and Cutuk, and they all live in a sod and igloo home up the river 40 miles or so from the Inupiaq town of Takunak. Their mother left years ago; Cutuk cannot remember her and is jealous of his siblings who can, especially Jerry.

"Our low door was built from split spruce poles, insulated with thick fall-time bull caribou hides nailed skin-out on both sides. The hinges were ugruk [bearded seal] skin. 'Better chop the bottom loose,' Abe suggested. He reached in the wood box for the hatchet. Enuk pounded with his big fists until the condensation ice crumbled. He yanked inward. The wind and swirling snow roared, a hole into the howling world; the wind shuddered the lamp flame. A smooth waist-high white mirror of the door stood in his way. Chilled air rolled across the floor. Enuk leapt and vanished over the drift into the night gusts."

So this book begins. In beautiful and elegant prose, the book follows Cutuk until he becomes a young man. The story of his life weaves in and out of the story of what is happening to the Eskimo as they have more access to alcohol, drugs and the "shiny stuff" of the white man's world (TVs, snowmobiles, money, appliances). Cutuk wants to be Eskimo; he constantly tries to flatten his nose. He is teased for his white skin and blond hair on their infrequent trips to town.

The land is made vivid by the gift of Kantner's writing…the tundra, the snow, the ice, the foxes and wolves and caribou and lynx, the skies, the rivers and creeks and mountains, the geese and ptarmigan. The characters are memorable, not because they are noble or extraordinary but because they are caught in a world of change that is inexorable. Cutuk himself is caught too, in the intersection of white and Eskimo, in so many sad and beautiful places; at times the novel is heartbreaking.

"Outside the windows, trees and branches and dead fireweed gleamed in thick morning frost. In the distance came the sporadic roar of ice grinding down the current. This was the fourth morning of Freezeup…Fall, with its leaves and insects, robins and liquid water, was hibernating. The land was folding its tarps, emptying it buckets for winter."

Cutuk lives in Anchorage for awhile. Iris goes to college and returns to teach school in Takunak. Jerry leaves for good. Abe exists as he has always, wanting his kids to be happy, exhibiting a strong love that isn't predicated on their conforming to his philosophy or his lifestyle. He is an artist but often throws his paintings in the stove. Cutuk wonders about him; he wonders about his mother….

The author "was born and raised in the wilderness of northern Alaska…and lives with his wife and daughter in northwest Alaska."

Louise Erdrich says: "I've not read anything that so captures the contrast between the wild world and our ravaging consumer culture. Ordinary Wolves is painful and beautiful."

Book: The Slow Way Back by Judy Goldman

Another modern white-family story…about two sisters, Thea and Mickey, and their different personalities and childhood experiences. They are now adults, living in the South. The book is more Thea's story than Mickey's. It is pretty much a zuzu book, meaning it's another tale about a person who perseverates about herself and her past. But there was enough else in the book so that I finished it: Jewish families in the South, husbands, marriages, breast cancer….and the mystery surrounding her parents' lives. Thea is given some letters her grandmother wrote. They are in Yiddish, but she finds a woman to translate them.

These books dwell on the details and sometimes I like them for that.

"He was bearing down on the shovel with his right foot, pushing it deep in the soil, making neat trenches around all the hostas. Then he lifted them out, their chartreuse leaves iced in white, and gently placed them behind her. His legs, khaki shorts, Hornets T-shirt were flecked with dirt and bits of leaves. He kept pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and brushing himself off. Thea was on her knees, taking the hostas he'd dug and separating them with a butcher knife into smaller clumps. Then she set them in a messy, uneven row along he edge of the bed of toothed-wood fems, where they would plant them."

Book: Children of the Flames by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel

Dr Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz

What surprised me most about this book was how normal and charming Dr. Mengele often appeared to be….even while he stood on the platform as the transport trains brought Jews to Auschwitz and he made his selections, quickly determining if a person were to live or die immediately in the crematorium.

The book alternates a narrative of Mengele's life with remembrances of surviving twins, most now 70s or 80s.

The  husband of one of the authors is Alex Dekel. Though not a twin he was selected by Mengele, probably for "his Aryan good looks and his fluency in German." Alex says of Mengele:

"I have never accepted the fact the Mengele himself believed he was doing serious medical work--not from the slipshod way he went about it. He was only exercising his power…major surgeries were performed without anesthesia. Once I witnessed a stomach operation--Mengele was removing pieces from the stomach, but without anesthesia. Another time, it was a heart that was removed, again, without anesthesia. It was horrifying. Mengele was a doctor who became mad because of the power he was given. Nobody every questioned him--why did this one die? why did that one perish? The patients did not count. He professed to do what he did in the name of science, but it was a madness on his part."

What was interesting is how Mengele lived in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay for many years, much of that time, inexplicably, openly. When Eichmann was captured in May of 1960 and subsequently executed, there was a resurgence both of anti-Semitism and renewed efforts to track down aging Nazis who so far had lived free. Mengele's life became more difficult, less comfortable.

Subsequent to liberation, the survivors' tried to redefine their lives, as they search for lost family members and wander around Europe, as they decide eventually where to live and whom to marry, as they have children, as they struggle under the weight of their experiences. Mengele, too, is estranged from his family, especially grieved by the absence of his beloved and only son Rolf (who for years believed Mengele was his uncle). He flees Germany but never stops seeking validation, always insisting he was a man of science, always unrepentant, always believing in the Third Reich….

Mengele had a brother, Alois, and "the townspeople of Gunzburg say that over the years, [Alois] became increasingly disturbed by the persistent stories about Josef's cruelty and sadism at Auschwitz. Alois evidently told Josef he had serious misgivings about what he had done during the war. According to the mayor of Gunzburg, [Alois] even chose to do his own research, going as far as to seek out witnesses who could corroborate his brother's version of events. But the mere fact that a family member would have doubts about his distressed Mengele terribly."

How to reconcile the distress Mengele felt about his brother's loss of faith in him and the lack of distress he had for his part in the Holocaust.

How can we ever understand…

"There was one little boy of exceptional beauty who was Mengele's favorite companion as he made his daily rounds at the Gypsy camp. What a striking pair they made--the tall, graceful doctor and the dark, delicate child who barely came up to his knees. Mengele had him dressed all in white, so that the boy looked strangely regal. Sometimes he would ask the little boy to perform a jig or sing a melody Afterward, Mengele would lean over and hug him, and ply him with chocolates and candies….Toward the end of that terrible night, when nearly all the Gypsies had been slaughtered, Mengele went to get the boy who had been his little mascot. Hand in hand, they walked around the camp, as they had done for so many months. Then Mengele took the child to the gas chamber and showed him the way inside. He obediently climbed in."

The author writes that the "bizarre, mysterious bond forged between Mengele and 'his' twins at Auschwitz remained long after they parted company. However hard they tried, none could banish the memories of the handsome young doctor who had tortured and, they thought, loved them." This is a provocative and terrifying statement.

There is an organization begun by Eva and Miriam Mozes, twin sisters who survived, with the acronym CANDLES which is Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Laboratory Experiments Survivors.

Miriam returns to Auschwitz: "Oddly enough, I felt strangely free at Auschwitz. At last, I had found my mother's resting place. I could speak to my mother here. It was the only place in the world I felt close to her. Our liberation had happened in 1945, but I felt personally liberated for the first time in 1985. I felt I could stop looking for my mother, I knew I had found her resting place. "

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Books by Michelle Wildgen

I read three of Ms. Wildgen's books. The first one I picked off the New Books shelf and after reading it, went to the stacks for more by this author.

Bread and Butter (the first novel I read by this author but the third one she has written):
Two brothers, Leo and Britt, own and operate a successful upscale restaurant in a small town an hour from Pittsburgh. Then, Harry, a third and much younger brother returns to town and decides that he is going to open a restaurant also, which is surprising but also disconcerting. So there are the family dynamics and lots of writing that foodies would like:

 "Harry reached into the lowboy for a little oval stoneware dish filled with baccala; it would go into the oven to heat and finish with a run under the salamander to born it before it was plated with the socca and lightly dressed arugula."

"The sardines lay denuded and separated from their nduja-spread toasts, a flavor combination Britt now confirmed was not working, since no one was eating it together. The cloudy-eye heads of the fish were stoically averted from the bare fronds of their ribs. The baby octopus wasn't moving, but the few he'd seen looked perfect, purple and white beneath a yellow haystack of frizzed ginger."

"As he passed his parents, he let a hand linger briefly on their shoulders while he peered at their plates. They were down to crumbs, but that didn't mean they'd loved the dishes. Harry and Britt could have set a live possum before their parents and their mother would have coolly, maternally, sharpened her butter knife."

Good characters, scenes and plot development.

You're Not You (Ms Wilden's debut novel):
I also liked this even though it was more somber than Bread and Butter. Kate is a wealthy, attractive, relatively young, married woman with Lou Gehrig's disease and she needs a caregiver. Becca is a college student with no experience doing this kind of work, but she applies for the position anyway and is hired.

I found it a powerful book as Becca's carefree college life is juxtaposed with Kate's who is wheelchair-bound and has minimal motor function left. It's not sappy at all and Becca is not a saint.

"After a moment she let her eyes close again, but they opened in surprise as her head fell forward, her chin dropping coward her chest. This had been happening more lately. The next step was a new head-rest on her wheelchair, more of a brace, to grip her skull and hold her up. I reached over as I  drove, my palm and fingertips flat against her forehead as I tipped her head back again. She felt warm, her smooth skin leaving a faint trace of powdered slickness from her makeup on my hand."

Kate has a kind attentive husband but one day, she tells Becca that Evan is moving out, and Becca starts to spend more and more time with Kate, becoming tangled up in something bigger than herself. She learns to cook with Kate's coaching. She gets to know the other caregivers. She continues her love affair with a married professor. It's a complete novel, satisfying all the way through.

This book was the best, although Bread and Butter was easier as eating is better than dying.

But Not For Long
There are housing coops in a college town in Wisconsin. Hal, Greta and Karin live in one of them and are the characters in this book, but I couldn't figure out the point of the novel. Who was the person on the dock? Why did the power go off? Who were these self-absorbed, vaguely hippie-ish characters and what was their future? What was the cheese-cured-in-caves all about? And Will….why was he in this story only near the end? It seemed like ideas for several different novels were all being tried out in this one…and then it just ended.

Still, two out of three isn't bad...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book: Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Clanton, Ford County, Mississipi.

It's been three years since Jake Brigance won the case against Carl Lee Hailey (A Time to Kill). Because of that trial, the Klan burned his house and then tried to kill him. He is now struggling, fighting with the insurance company over his home and his office "filled with wills and deeds and two-bit contract disputes, not one decent criminal case and no promising car wrecks. "

But then Seth Hubbard commits suicide and leaves a holographic will (a will that is written and signed by the person making the will with no witnesses). Two days later, Jake receives a letter with a request from Seth to be the lawyer for his estate…to make certain this last will is honored, a will in which he leaves most of his considerable estate to a poor black woman. He explicitly disinherits any living relatives which surely does get the attention of a whole slew of lawyers as the offended parties gather.

I couldn't put the book down; the story was fascinating; the characters good and bad, black and white;  and the venue a vicarious trip to a warmer place than frigid Michigan.

Mr. Grisham just tells a good tale. Anyone who likes his writing won't be disappointed. Of course throughout I kept seeing the devilishly handsome Matthew McConaughey and his seductive sweet-honey way of speaking, a perfect choice for this character.

"Jake walked into the Coffee Shop at five minutes after seven….The subject was changed the moment Jake walked in each morning, and as soon as he left it was if someone flipped a switch and Seth's will was again front and center…There were strong opinions that a man in his right mind should be able to give away his property as he pleased, regardless of his family Others argued he wasn't in his right mind. Lettie had her share of detractors. She was widely believed to be a loose woman who took advantage of poor old Seth."