Monday, October 31, 2011

A German Requiem by Philip Kerr

Named for the poem written by James Fenton about Germany after the Nazi era, this novel is the third in Philip Kerr’s ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy. Bernie Gunther is the antihero, the ex-policeman who as part of the German police force worked for the SS but asked to become a soldier to avoid being involved in the crimes of the Third Reich. He was eventually captured by the Russians and sent to work in the mines. A year later, he was to be sent back to Germany, but was resourceful enough to jump the train and avoid the pitfalls of repatriation, especially as it was being carried out by the Russians.

The Fenton poem is cryptic and skirts its subject, glancing off and on what was done and what transpired. The poem’s structure seems to mimic our inability to absorb and to process such barbarities. As in Heidelberg, when I visited there: coming down a hill, seeing a small amphitheater sitting there on the grass, all deserted, with no identification, no plaque… “That was where they held the rallies”, my sister said, with all solemnity. Philip Kerr duly mentions throughout the book the horror of the world regarding Nazi atrocities. However, his main focus is to show how life went on in postwar Germany, with new players mingling with the old.

The time is 1947, and Gunther travels to Vienna to investigate a murder of an American officer by a German policeman, one with ties to the underworld. What you find with Kerr is that the “underworld” is almost everywhere. Whether it’s his wife Kristen carrying on in Berlin with an American officer for the material goods he can get for her, or the Allies deciding to work with ex-Nazis to go after the Communists, almost everyone has an agenda – to look after themselves. Gunther finds out the truth about everyone, so there isn’t much to say about anybody, unless it’s the poor girl with a lover who was silenced so that she gets killed almost as an afterthought.

Kerr knows his history, and the reader can be grateful by the end that at least somebody understands who was doing what and for whom. Kerr is clever enough to have some big spoils hinted at to keep us reading – no less than Hermann Goering, who Kerr suggests was never brought to justice, but is alive and well under a new identity, working with the Americans. This twist is just to help nail in the relentless view that Kerr wants us to acquiesce in…that villains may fall, but only new ones take their place.

The Other October 31st Holiday

Millions of people the world over know that the calendar date of October 31 is a chance to dress up, eat candy and throw parties. Halloween, derived from the former term 'All Hallows Eve' meant to imply the night before All Saints' Day, is actually one of those holidays loosely based on both pagan and Christian traditions but which has come to betoken a more secularized mode of celebration. Yet the date is significant for another reason, an event in history every bit as laudable and largely more important altogether than anything its more popular festival has to offer. Reformation Day commemorates the day in history, October 31, 1517, when a young German monk, Order of St. Augustine, named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses On the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Church in Wittenberg in the region then known as the Holy Roman Empire (modern day Germany). Though officially intended as a scholarly dissertation on the Papacy's policy on indulgences (essentially the theory of buying your way out of purgatory and into heaven), the 95 points of disputation clearly held an undercurrent of challenge to the Roman church whose abuse of power and uncensored distortion of ecclesiastical principles had long preyed upon its subjects.

The date of the posting actually coincided with the Pope's "fundraiser", a sale of indulgences intended to raise money for a new Basilica in Rome and a scheme to which Luther effectively replied "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest of the rich, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" (Thes. 86). Luther would further denounce John Tietzel, one of the leading peddlers of such indulgences and other trinkets, by mocking his trade--"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs"(Thes. 76). The 95 Theses posted to the church door were actually a copy of the same document Luther had disseminated among several of the more prominent princes in the Northern Germanic kingdoms, namely Frederik III of Saxony, an important political figure who would later play an implemental role in protecting Luther himself from angry papal legates. It was a day and an event which put in motion not merely another schism within the Roman church, but an entire breaking from papal authority and its precepts altogether. It was the Protestant Reformation, a movement which re-established salvation along Biblical lines and abolished the Pope's power in much of Europe, spreading first in Germany, then portions of the continental North, Scandinavia and finally Great Britain (It should be noted that King Henry VIII of England allied himself with Luther and his growing contemporaries (Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, etc.) out of mostly selfish ambition, his reasons for turning Protestant more out of a want to annul his marriage than break with the Pope. Though to be fair, Henry was at least marginally keen on the nature of religious dogma and had for some time been contemplating the reformers' theology.) Today Reformation Day is still celebrated on October 31st in the Lutheran Church as well as in other protestant circles. Further Reading on the Protestant Reformation and on Martin Luther can be found in the Dewey number 270.1 or in biographies under B LUTHER.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Gigantic / by Marc Nesbitt

A black laborer and his partner work are hired at the home of a wealthy white Southern businessman only to find out that their "job" is to pose as a human lawn ornament during an especially odd party. Things get even more strange when the man's daughter's sexual misadventures turn violent. Then a downtrodden mattress salesman in his thirties witnesses an especially gruesome car accident up close, a shocking event sending him spiraling toward a new revelation concerning his relationship with his father. A young man has kept his imaginary girlfriend from childhood throughout his life only to find out how unstable his "companion" becomes when he betrays her. When sanitation worker is summoned to pick up roadkill on an isolated highway only to endure a life-threatening incident which terrorizes him to his core.

Nesbitt's little collection of short stories, while very different, is as thoroughly engrossing as it is peculiar. His sentences, descriptions and metaphors, especially his metaphors, are something to behold. Or at least something to take note of. "We stand there watching the quiet between our faces." "Snow drops in bright white pieces like the stars are crumbling." 'Her hand jerks like a leather spider." "The train whispers something about distance." It's not hard to see why some of the literary world's more eclectic figures have praised the work immensely. It's an arresting worldview that Nesbitt imbues, an uncommonly vague yet poetically engendering place where troubled, bemused and disenfranchised young men dwell in a sort-of demented whirlpool of outcomes. And while nearly all of the protagonists are unnamed, you get the sense of that being the intended objective of the author: it's an everyman's kind of insane world. (FIC NESBITT)

My Freshman Year: What A Professor Learned by Becoming a Student / by Rebekah Nathan

As an anthropology professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, Rebekah Nathan wanted to find out why so many of the faculty and students simply failed to understand one another. In an effort to research the issue, she decided to take a more hands-on approach to understanding the behavior of her students and promptly re-enrolled as an undergraduate. Getting (back) into school wasn't actually that hard. Professor Nathan was able to finagle a situation in which the administration of a local state school ("AnyU") allowed her to follow through on her little experiment. Though she admits the somewhat disorienting feeling of being a 50-year-old freshman, Nathan concedes that it was probably the best way to observe the relationship between today's college students and their academic work. And while the study is sociological in nature focusing on the average students lifestyle as well as their study habits, there's a more substantial portion of the content geared toward the academic side of things. Above all the author just wanted to know why her students seemed so disengaged from the world of intellectual pursuit of ideas as opposed to studying merely for a grade. Why have so many of tomorrow's leaders been transitioned to the mindset that college is yet another facet in the consumerism? Why are things like cheating, not reading the required material and skipping assignments altogether viewed as perfectly acceptable? Why is plagiarizing someone else's work in favor of producing your own no longer such a big deal?

My Freshman Year is, at the very least, an honest attempt to investigate and at least acquire some understanding on the state of higher education, and it succeeds in examining an outsider's assimilation into a particular social group. But it's far from foolproof. You have to actually read the book to realize it's not another pop culture critique by a savvy journalist wanting to investigate the more interesting social behavior of transitioning adolescents. The experiment succeeds, but only to a point. Nathan's resulting conclusion about today's college kids--"that, above all, college is about positioning yourself for a good job and an affluent future"--seems a bit inconclusive as she does little more than surmise on the partial dissolution of academia (the pursuit of knowledge) and its inability to adapt to contemporary society. She doesn't really get that of the majority of the individuals she's associated with, most are preconditioned to follow the same merit-oriented mindset in college ("careerism") which they were indoctrinated with during their more formative education years. The independent, scholarly "life of the mind", while theoretically still viable, has for better or worse been superseded by more pragmatic ideals, ones which aren't necessarily exclusive to the collegiate microcosm. (371.198 NATHAN)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Awakening / by S.J. Bolton

It's not a stretch to say that Clara Benning feels more comfortable around animals than people. A veterinarian in a small English village of St. Francis on the Dorset coast, she's truly engrossed in her life of treating sheep, pigs, cattle and other area wildlife but remains rather reclusive otherwise. When her daily routine is disrupted by a few house calls in which some definitely non-indigenous animals are seen around town, Clara begins to think it's not a coincidence. Indeed when a distraught mother calls on Clara to remove a venomous snake from her baby's crib and another family's home is overrun with snakes which are most certainly not the garden variety, it becomes pretty self-evident that there's a human hand involved. When one snake attack and then another cause fatalities, the oddly curious outcropping of serpentine reptiles becomes a menacing epidemic. With the help of Assistant Chief Constable Matt Hoare and oddball eccentric herpetologist (snake expert) Sean North, Clara starts investigating the mystery soon finding that some things about her little village aren't so venerable. Not long after she uncovers a long kept secret about the history of the town, Clara's ultimately accused of being the perpetrator, a mess she'll only get out of if she can solve the mystery herself.

Bolton writes a good mystery, capturing a sympathetic and very well-fleshed out character in Clara. While she's no James Herriot, she knows her way around her small rural community where withering isolation and claustrophobia can drive certain people insane. Even though it's a scenic locale, one in which tourists stop by, St. Francis is one of those places where everyone's in everyone else's business and the only way to keep your private life private is by becoming a recluse à la Clara. Most readers will feel an instant connection with the dedicated vet, an individual who's had her share of past wounds and inner demons to deal with. Some more cozy mystery lovers may not take to the slithering snake element, the beasts more than a little too close for comfort on several occasions, namely when they inhabit the same beds as sleeping couples and children. Bolton was nominated for a Dagger Award for her debut novel Sacrifice, another great read. (MYS BOLTON)

Running For My Life: My Journey in the Game of Football and Beyond / by Warrick Dunn

Just after midnight on January 7, 1993, Cpl. Betty Smothers of the Baton Rouge Police Department was helping a local store clerk institute a night deposit at a nearby bank when both women were ambushed by two gunmen who shot and ultimately killed Smothers. The violent incident was notable not just because a loyal police officer was killed--only the fifth Louisiana policewoman ever--but because Smothers was the single mother of five children, the oldest being Catholic High Senior football standout Warrick Dunn. The previous fall Warrick, a quarterback, corner and kick returner, had guided Catholic to its first ever state championship game and later signed a letter of intent to play football at Florida State. With the death of his mother, he assumed his role as head of his family even as he would enroll at FSU later that same year. Dunn instantly became a key component of a backfield which included Heisman trophy winner (and Warrick's roommate) Charlie Ward, helping lead the Seminoles to their first ever National Championship almost a year to the day of his mother's death. The rest of the story is something of a legend, Dunn breaking all manner of school rushing records, winning awards and receiving accolades on his path to a standout pro career where he won a Super Bowl as part of the Tampa Bay Bucs and was a three time Pro Bowl selection.

But this story's not really about football. No book which opens with a man confronting his mother's murderer on death row can really be about a game. And even though Dunn's story, his athletic career included, is something of an improbable feel-good tale of overcoming obstacles, the book's not a publicity piece or an overdramatized memoir weighed down by sentiment. The narrative is a truly down-to-earth confessional from a humble, soft-spoken man who managed to parlay a horrendous tragedy into an opportunity for love, forgiveness and a chance to help those in need. Since 1997, the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation has helped thousands of underpriveleged single parent families find help with basic needs assistance and the "Homes For the Holidays" portion of the non-profit has given the gift of home ownership to thousands in the Greater Baton Rouge area, Tampa Bay, Tallahassee and Atlanta. Dunn is now a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons. (796.332092 DUNN)

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Prayer For Owen Meany / by John Irving

New England is one of those places where good writers seem to flourish. Not that there aren't other places in the country where literary prowess is concentrated, but the region's seemingly always had an endless supply of talented bards. John Irving is one of them. An Exeter, New Hampshire native where his stepfather and uncle were on the faculty of the local high-profile prep school, Irving grew up never knowing his biological father, an Army Air Corpsmen killed in WWII. After attending Exeter, he went on to the University of Pittsburgh with the hopes of continuing a successful amateur wrestling career but ultimately matriculated back home and the local state university. In the mid-sixties he attended several prestigious writers workshops including the noteworthy University of Iowa gig as well as one in Vienna, a location he would later tab for his first novel. By the 1970's he was writing moderately successful novels and teaching English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 1978, The World According to Garp became a bestseller and an international sensation, initiating a decade of success for the writer whose 1980's novels (and one short story) were all either bestsellers or award winners--1985's The Cider House Rules would later net Irving an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. A Prayer For Owen Meany is likely the author's most autobiographical work and though not as wildly popular as 'Garp'--its subject matter is much tamer and more solemn by comparison--is still one of the most widely read books around.

By any standard, Owen Meany is small. It's not just his diminutive stature which distinguishes him from all his peers, or even his fawn-like build and bone structure which projects a alarmingly vulnerable quality. It's his voice. Always a bit of a high pitched squeal several octaves above normal, it's never changed with age, a damaged larynx responsible for the son of a New Hampshire granite mason's conspicuously awkward speech. His size or lack thereof and his quirky, atonal articulations aren't really what sets Owen apart though. It's something else altogether, something especially remarkable. For John Wheelwright, it's not really something about his best friend as something which is him, a fated and fatalistic phenomenon which underlies a particularly critical truth in both their lives. Owen possesses a prescient, almost clairvoyant insight into the future. But it's not so much a psychic power or mystical foreknowledge of things to come as it is an unmistakeable ability to gauge the nature of reality, to foresee a culmination of events based off calculations and intuitions made from an especially brilliant mind. And yet Owen's neither a cold intellectual nor a cynical forecaster of doom. There's a spiritual side to the boy, a very serious spiritual side.

A particularly odd and tragic accident has inadvertently illuminated this fact: the death of John's cherished mother from a foul ball which Owen hit--the only connection the boy ever made with a baseball--during their last little league game. The death is very sad of course. But instead of driving the boys apart, the tragedy actually brings the 12-year-olds closer. After all, Owen loved John's mother as much as John did. The event marks an almost cathartic transformation in Owen who senses a hidden destiny behind the oddly peculiar incident. As the two transition from childhood to adulthood amid a world going from bad to worse in the 1960's, what's already becoming clear to Owen is slowly revealed in tragic and devastating fashion before John's eyes. Although by the time it manifests in full, it just may be too late for John to salvage the life and legacy of his best friend.

Not everyone likes John Irving. Need it be said that he doesn't care for a few of his peers either. His plots are rather atypical and complex, many of them more than a little 'all over the place' with characters demonstrating a propensity towards odd choices and peculiar behaviors. More than a few critics have called his novels Dickensian marking the author's twisting narrative style, quizzical personalities and multiple settings. He writes well though, with a style that's very engaging and accessible to readers. 'Owen Meany' isn't quite as outlandish a plot as 'Garp' or Hotel New Hampshire in which some truly oddball characters cross paths in small town America and Central Europe. John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are relative down to earth types, John a somewhat lazy New Englander descended from founding fathers and Owen an unusually intelligent, especially dynamic product of the working class. That the story is especially grounded in spiritual principles, fervent Protestantism at that, is rather uncharacteristic of Irving. This is after all the same guy who wrote the characters of 'Roberta' Muldoon, the transsexual ex-football star, and radical feminist Jenny Fields into the same story ('Garp'). 'Owen Meany' has nothing so eccentric which may be why it's one of the author's most universally accessible novels. At the same time it's hard to see the story working as well in another's hands. Written by someone else, Owen might come off as something of nerdy outcast or a fledgling sidekick. He's neither of these, really not anywhere close though to call him a hero in a realistic sense wouldn't be too far off. No, the character of Owen is likely one of Irving's greatest achievements, a "small wonder" who's very much the classic visionary as well as an imperturbable charismatic, a cherished friend and magnanimous martyr and, penultimately, every bit a human being. Because of him, the book is a truly captivating work. (FIC IRVING)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Haunted Houses

The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life At Rose Red / Joyce Reardon, ed.
In the early part of the twentieth century, an oil baron John Rimbauer and his wife Ellen build an enormous mansion in Seattle against the wishes of the locals who say that building a home on an Indian burial ground is bad luck. Tragedy and haunts follow the lives of those who live inside the house through the decades, particularly that of Ellen Rimbauer, whose diary is rehashed years later by a parapsychologist. (FIC DIARY)

The Good House: A Novel / by Tananarive Due
In a small town in Washington state, the Toussaint home still feels the haunting effects from over a century ago when a powerful voodoo priestess from New Orleans unleashed a horrible spirit over it. Now, years later the woman’s descendants have returned to the town to help rid the house and the town of its deadly curse. (FIC DUE)

The Woman in Black / by Susan Hill
Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, is summoned to the small English village of Crythin Gifford to organize the estate of the now deceased Alice Drablow only to be received by the townspeople with suspicion and coldness. At the former home of the old woman, Arthur is recurrently confronted by the ghastly apparition of a veiled woman dressed in black amid other terrors. (FIC HILL)

The Cellar / by Richard Laymon
In the town of Malcasa Point, CA is a house known as the Beast House which is said to be haunted. Though off limits at night, daytime tours are conducted which take visitors through every room but the cellar of which no one, not even the tour guides, dare venture. This is Laymon’s first installment of the Beast House chronicles which include The Beast House, The Midnight Tour & Friday Night in the Beast House. (FIC LAYMON)

Gad’s Hall / by Norah Lofts
Gad's Hall, an English country home on the market for the first time in over a century, is purchased by a couple and their three children who are desperate for home with enough space to suit their needs. But when their daughter Jill finds herself experiencing strange feelings about parts of her new property, particularly the empty locked room upstairs, the dream becomes a nightmare. The sequel to this book (actually a prequel) is The Haunting of Gad’s Hall. (FIC LOFTS)

Hell House / by Richard Matheson
Parapsychologist Lionel Barrett, a physicist with an interest in parapsychology and four others including his Barrett's wife Edith are hired by dying millionaire William Reinhardt Deutsch to investigate the possibility of life after death. To do so, they must enter the infamous Belasco House in Maine, regarded as the most haunted house in the world. (FIC MATHESO)

Wicked Autumn: A Mystery / by G.M. Malliet

There's a reason retired MI5 agent Max Tudor is now a village vicar in the tiny hamlet of Nether Monkslip. There was a time and place for his former life of adventure and espionage, a period in his past when tracking down criminals and terrorist threats was his only calling. But then a horrific accident changed everything forever and now he's perfectly happy to mentor and minister provincial types on matters of faith. So it's something of a minor inconvenience when one of his congregation is found stabbed to death at the Harvest Fayre and Max finds himself in the middle of a murder case. Granted, the victim was one of his less popular parishioners. Wanda Batton-Smythe, the mean, bossy leader of the Women's Institute of Nether Monkslip was most certainly not very well-liked. With a penchant for inciting fear and exposing weakness in seemingly every acquaintance she ever made (even her husband, a former Army Major, seems thoroughly cowed under his wife's authoritarian demeanor), Wanda was a woman which more than a few townspeople might've enjoyed ridding themselves of. But when the two detectives from the county's police task force arrive on the scene, no one seems remotely interested in giving evidence. It's even difficult for Max, operating behind the scenes, to surmise on a possible suspect. Wanda's enemies, though plentiful, aren't so aggressive that they'd attempt any kind of physical assault. And then to kill her?

Agatha award winner Malliet brings the goods in this cozy mystery which even includes a fold-out map of the village in the binding. Quirky characters and sequences are given mileage by a hefty dose of metaphorical inserts ("her voice filling the room like a sonic gun", "her hair clipped short around protuberant ears, she resembled a Chihauhua puppy abandoned in a snowdrift" or "the woman stared at the cover like Queen Victoria being handed a pamphlet on early contraceptive techniques"). Not that it's unwelcome or even misplaced. Malliet knows how to write cozy. Which is to say she writes with a splendid sort of moderation, a perfect blend of comically cute descriptions and indelibly charming technique. Readers will enjoy the author's take on village life and its colorful individuals while at the same time won't be lulled into boredom by predictable circumstances. Max Tudor is the right kind of protagonist to confront such surroundings, an outsider who's understandably been converted to domestic small town life and yet remains an introspective, spiritual man keen on the deeper elements of human nature. That he's a handsome eligible bachelor amid the cooing eyes of all the available parish women makes things even more interesting. (MYS MALLIET)

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Although this book was published in 2009, it remains a solid best seller, and the Disney movie “The Help” which came out this summer, is proving to be a just as successful. The book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, has based her book partly on her recollections of growing up with an Afro-American maid in her family, who was “looked after” (they paid her medical bills), but at the same time used a separate toilet when she was working for them. The book chronicles life in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, specifically from the point of view of two Afro-American maids and from the viewpoint of a young white woman who gets the idea to elicit and write their stories and the experiences of other Afro-American maids in Jackson.

The young white woman, Skeeter, is a misfit in the young Southern belle world, being too tall and gangly for dating purposes and being literary-minded, in a down home kind of culture that doesn’t prize educated females. Fresh home from college, Skeeter wants to be a writer. Her naïve letter of application to a New York publisher expecting to be considered for an editorial position gets the attention of one of their real editors, who advises her start writing about “what she knows”, and to get a position at a local paper anyway she can. Skeeter eventually comes up with the idea of the maids’ stories, and it is just revolutionary enough for that place and time to get the New York editor’s attention and a promise to look at the finished copy.

Kathryn Stockett’s prose flows easily and I quickly became immersed in the three narrators’ lives. It was only at the end that I realized that some of the criticism being written about The Help was accurate. The book does end up being about Skeeter more than the two maids – it is Skeeter’s success that we’re rooting for, and for her escape from Jackson. What is ironic is that the maids also support her leaving, as though they are equals and have the same view of the culture that Skeeter does, as a white woman. In reliable, firsthand accounts of women at that time, even the imagining of any so-called “hardships” that single white women (like Skeeter) might be enduring would be a luxury of imagination that the Afro-American population as a whole was not interested in or motivated to indulge in. They needed all their energies to stay alive. The maids in this book, and in the movie, simply do not illustrate the actual conditions that Afro-Americans experienced at that time in the United States.

The audacity that prompts the older maid, Winnie, to conceal human waste in a pie for her white employer belongs to someone in a much more relaxed era of race relations. Stockett manipulates the maids' situations to a level of equality with the white women, as when a ragged naked white man tries to assault both the lady of the house and her maid. The book's lighthearted comic quality goes hand in hand with copious tears about the maids raising children not their own, and how emotionally available the Afro-American women are compared to frigid white women. While the book’s easy accessibility to its characters makes you feel that you’re present in their lives, this fiction is a sweetened up version of the real thing, like Minnie’s chocolate pie.

(This book was reviewed by my colleague, Dan, on 2/3/10)