Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

Chris Cleave has written several global bestsellers, notably the 2008 novel Little Bee, but his 2016 book Everyone Brave is Forgiven was his first foray into historical fiction. This quick-moving novel of four young people caught up in World War II is heavy on both action and emotion, but the character development lags behind the pace of the text, and it can’t help but suffer in comparison to a contemporary novel that does so much more with the same setting.

The quartet of characters at the heart of the book are Mary, Tom, Alistair, and Hilda, although Hilda is secondary to the main trio and bizarre love triangle that occupies the first half of the book. Mary and Tom are a quick item, meeting by chance at the start of the war when the manor-born Mary signs up and runs into Tom at the war office. Alistair, Tom’s more worldly, witty roommate, meets Mary later and the attraction is instant and mutual – but she and Tom are already engaged by this point and Alistair is heading back off to war after his first stint ended in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Mary is beautiful, so of course Hilda, her best friend, must be ugly, in what I believe is the 4th or 5th law of popular fiction (I get the order wrong sometimes), and attempts to set Hilda up with Alistair go nowhere.

Cleave can really write – the pace is brisk but never skimps on evocative imagery, especially the scenes of Blitz-plagued London or the privations Alistair suffers while stationed in Malta. The section where Mary, Tom, and Mary’s little class of non-evacuated students are caught in a bombing is the most memorable passage in the book, especially in how Cleave communicates the characters’ confusion in the shock of the attack – everything was fine, and now it’s not. His rendition puts the reader in the fog right next to his characters, so you feel the disorientation and the revelations seem to come in reverse, as if time has rewound and played back at half-speed.

He adds to the sense of disorientation, however, through the way he reveals big twists, such as the death early in the book of a side character whom Alistair has just befriended. The nonchalant description of the death, in the final sentence of a chapter, feels manipulative, although Cleave uses the aftermath to explore more of Alistair’s character in the first real window the reader gets into his emotions. But the regular use of jarring reveals wears thin very quickly and gives the novel a pulpy feel that doesn’t marry well with the subject matter.

Alistair is easy the most interesting character of the four, as Tom is a blank page and Mary’s appeal must lie in her looks rather than anything about her personality. Cleave builds the characters and then puts them through the ringer, but they come out on the other side relatively unchanged, just older and short a limb or with a visible scar. This is the real disappointment of Everyone Brave is Forgiven: Cleave set a novel during the Blitz, put real thought and energy into depicting the city in ruins, and then had his characters drift through the setting without sufficient growth or development.

This book appeared just one year and one day after Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his own WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See, one of the best contemporary works of fiction I’ve read. Doerr crafted a more complex, meticulous plot, and in the soldier Werne gave readers a memorable, thoroughly-developed character who faces real moral challenges, without falling into the sentiment that traps Cleave. Doerr doesn’t skimp on the narrative greed – his novel moved faster and worked with higher stakes than Cleave’s, but along the way we get much more insight into Werne, and even Marie-Laure, who bears a few marks of the stock character, is better developed than Mary or Hilda. I find it hard to judge the latter novel without considering Doerr’s work, given their settings and how close the release dates were, but even on its own Cleave’s book is more a well-written page-turner than a work of good literature.

Next up: Still reading T.S. Stribling’s The Store, which has managed to pile a dash of anti-Semitism on top of its pervasive racism.

Land of Mine.

The Danish-German drama Land of Mine (Under Sandet) was one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language film at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony and swept the Robert Awards, the Danish equivalent of the Oscars, last year. The story is fictional but is based on the real-life effort after World War II where 2000 German POWs, many of them teenagers or elderly men, were forced to come to Denmark to clear the up to two million landmines the Nazis had planted along the country’s western coast. Half the Germans either died or were maimed in the work, and the question of whether this constituted a war crime still hangs over Danish history. Land of Mine is sparse and taut, rarely sentimental until the very end, and doesn’t let the Danes off the hook one bit for the choice to force children to pay for the sins of their fathers. (It’s available to rent/buy on amazon and iTunes.)

The kids forced to clear the mines arrive at a Danish beach under the command of Captain Ebbe and Sgt. Carl Rasmussen, both of whom appear to be completely unconcerned with their charges’ welfare – they are human fodder for clearing the mines, and if they die in the effort, that’s the Germans’ fault for placing the mines there in the first place. One boy doesn’t even make it out of the initial training. The group includes Helmut Morbach, who is either the most realistic kid of the group or just an asshole, depending on your view; Sebastian Schumm, who is the de facto leader of the troop; Wilhelm Hahn, a naive kid oblivious to what’s ahead of him either in Denmark or after a return home; and the twins Werner and Ernst Lessner, who plan to go home and become bricklayers to help rebuild Germany now that the war is over. There’s no question over their volition here: the boys are barricaded in their little hut at the end of each work day and aren’t even fed for the first few days at the beach.

The kids don’t stand out much as individual characters, but are vehicles for telling the greater story, including how Sgt. Carl (Herr Feldwebel to the kids) ends up caring about their welfare in spite of his own misgivings and the commands from above to treat them like slaves. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to mention that some of the 14 kids in the original group aren’t going to live to the end of the movie – they’re crawling on a beach looking for and defusing land mines, so of course there will be casualties. The movie’s impact comes more from how they’re injured or killed than how many, such as the effects of failing to feed the kids adequately, and in some of the cases we don’t really know the characters well enough to feel their losses as individuals.

Sgt. Carl, played by a relative novice actor in Roland Møller, is the moral center of the film, and his evolution over the course of the film becomes the movie’s conscience – he doesn’t want to think of the boys as people, comes to see them that way once the suffering and death begin, then is reminded of how they all ended up in this situation in the first place before he has to make one final decision to do the ‘right’ thing. Møller’s performance is dominant because most of it is so understated, and because his character gets the emotional complexity Ebbe’s and even the boys’ characters lack. That makes the ending of the film a little harder for me to accept – it’s the one true moment of sentiment, and the only part of the script that didn’t ring true. When he develops a little camaraderie with the boys, it seems only natural; he’s with them all day and starts to see them as real people, and struggles to transfer his hatred of the Nazis or the Germans over to them once he knows them. Whether the end works may depend on how much you buy into his personal transformation from the initial scene of abject hatred to the last day of work on the beach.

The characters of the POWs aren’t that well defined, but the young actors playing them at least give them depth in their emotional responses to the series of catastrophes that follow their assignment to the beach. They’re afraid every day, and every time the script seems like it’s giving them a few moments of calm, another mine explodes, setting off a new chain of emotional reactions in the survivors. Joel Basman delivers a strong performance as Helmut, the least likable of all of the boy soldiers, while the twins, Emil and Oskar Belton, playing Ernst and Werner get a small subplot of their own that gives Emil in particular a powerful scene in the back half of the film. The script also adds little details, like Sebastian answering a question about whether his father’s still alive with a long pause followed by a remote “I don’t know,” to flesh out the emotional states of these children even without giving us much in the way of biographical details.

Land of Mine is almost old-fashioned in its anti-nationalism; the easy thing to do in any historical drama about World War II is make any German characters the villains and move outward from there, but the protagonists of this movie are all Germans and don’t show the slightest hint of Nazi sympathies or even of German nationalism. They’re just kids, and all they want to do is survive and go home. The Danes are the nationalists, carrying forward their rage at the Nazi atrocities on to prisoners of war who had nothing to do with the mistreatment of Denmark. Sgt. Carl has to face the reality that the kids who’ve been conscripted to clear these mines are victims of the Nazi regime too, and the difficult decisions that the script gives him could apply to any conflict and any attempts at postwar reconciliation too.

Dragon’s Teeth.

Upton Sinclair is best remembered today for two of his early novels, the expose The Jungle and the novel Oil!, the latter of which was the basis for the movie There Will Be Blood. (Little-known fact: when Sinclair was on his deathbed, he had a clause put in his will that the movie version had to star Daniel Day-Lewis, who was just 11 years old at the time.) Sinclair later penned a series of eleven novels starring the charismatic socialist Lanny Budd, and the third one, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. It was out of print for years before the entire Budd series reappeared last year in ebook form, which is how I picked up Dragon’s Teeth (on sale one day for $2).

The novel is very much a product of its time, a blend of wartime patriotism and unrealistic action, with Lanny almost too good to be real and yet surrounded by many flawed characters, including his shallow socialite wife. (There isn’t a female character worth a damn in the book.) The story is the real driver here, as Budd, who’s living abroad in Europe for most of the novel, becomes an early prophet of doom as Hitler begins his rise to power in the late 1920s, even as those around him continue to try to do business with the German government or claim that the worst won’t come to pass. The novel’s second half becomes more action-oriented, where Budd has to rescue two Jewish friends, first a father then the son, from imprisonment by the Nazis, where Sinclair also provides a window into what’s really happening in Nazi Germany – perhaps a bit late by the time it was published, but certainly a reaction to the belief by some Americans that stories of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated or false.

There’s a lot more story than I just gave you – in 600+ pages, there had better be – but much of it is window dressing, or weak criticism. Sinclair appeared to have little or no use for the idle rich, and his depictions of their total indifference to the suffering of the poor and of the Jews in Germany are hard to take – although I concede they may have been very real. (We’re certainly seeing lots of indifference to the poor in our country today.) Sinclair ratchets up the tempo by raising the stakes – there’s really no reason to believe either or both of the Jews Lanny is trying to rescue will be found alive, or come out of the camps intact. But he doesn’t give a ton of depth to most of his characters; it’s a serious novel, but breezes along in parts like a comedy of manners.

What did surprise me, however, was Sinclair’s treatment of the two Jews at the heart of the story. American authors prior to 1950 or so tended to depict Jewish characters using hackneyed stereotypes, if they depicted them at all. Sinclair has Lanny related to the family by marriage, which I imagine would have been scandalous in polite society of the time, and his desire to rescue his friends/relatives is both philosophical and personal. The father Johannas is a businessman, but the Germans are the ones obsessed with money here – the price of freedom in both cases is money, everything Johannas has in the first case, then another exorbitant sum to free his son.

Throughout the Lanny Budd series, Sinclair puts the protagonist into major world events, here having Lanny meet with Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler multiple times, putting Lanny right in the middle of The Night of Long Knives, and sending Johannas’ son (and thus Lanny) to Dachau. Other real-world events appear via news reports so that Lanny can react to them (or expound his socialist views) and scold the Pollyannas who take Hitler at his word or try to continue to do business with Germany after the Nazis took over. In the moment, it probably felt like an important book that captured a time that was eight years in the past but also relevant to ongoing current events. Today, though, it seems heavy and dated, saved by brisk writing and plenty of action in the book’s second half, but not enough to make it stand up like Sinclair’s better-known works.

Next up: I’ve been reading Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear diptych, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel, and have about 350 pages to go in the second book.


My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the 3D building game Saloon Tycoon, and I wrote a piece for Insiders yesterday on some top 100 prospects who had down years. I also held a Klawchat here on Thursday.

Laurent Binet’s historical novel HHhH won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, an award given to the best debut novel in French literature, in 2010, and has since become a bestseller in multiple languages and even spawned a film version due out in 2017. But it’s far from a typical historical novel; while the novel’s core is the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “Blond Beast” of Hitler’s regime and a primary architect of the Holocaust, Binet has wrapped that story up in his own metafictional account of the author’s difficulty in writing a novel about the past where the participants are dead.

The Heydrich storyline is fairly simple, and Binet – or, I suppose, the narrator-author within the book – tells it with sufficient detail to inform the reader and keep the plot moving. Heydrich was born into privilege but was dogged by rumors as a youth that he was part Jewish; as a teenager, he joined a volunteer paramilitary unit and an anti-Semitic organization that was a major forerunner of the Nazi Party. He joined the Germany Navy in 1922 and was rapidly promoted through the ranks; he later married a woman who was already an ardent Nazi, but the affair cost him his officer status and he was briefly unemployed. A bit of good fortune put him in front of Heinrich Himmler, who named him head of the newly created intelligence service within the SS, a post that led to another surge up the ranks for Heydrich, culminating in his roles as director of the Gestapo and as Acting Protector of the occupied area now known as Czechia. It was there that Heydrich became the lone high-ranking Nazi official to be assassinated by resistance forces, the result of a courageous and clumsy operation called Anthropoid that resulted in Heydrich’s death, a showdown where the assassins were trapped in a Prague church after a lengthy manhunt, and the Nazi destruction of the towns of Lidice and Ležáky, with over 1300 civilians murdered.

Binet’s approach in HHhH – the title stands for “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich,” which means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” – is to tell the story of the assassination while also telling the story of telling the story. He presents himself through this narrator surrogate as a writer somewhat obsessed with the historical facts, dwelling over the difficulty of recreating events through secondhand materials of questionable veracity, and often presenting a scene complete with dialogue only to tell us in the next section that he made it up.

On the one hand, Binet examines some real questions seldom asked of historical fiction and even non-fiction, not the least of which is how the author could possibly know what was said in the dialogue s/he presents. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable, as are our memories in general, so even asking participants who said what won’t produce accurate answers. On the other hand, it’s distracting as hell to get rolled up in the assassination storyline, only to have Binet’s narrator burst through the door with a “hold up, that’s not really what happened!” tangent that breaks the spell of the narrative. To be fair, that’s more prevalent in the first half of the book; once the story gets cooking, such as the scene when the assassins bumble the actual attempt (which, sorry for the spoiler, killed Heydrich anyway), the interruptions are fewer, and Binet saves some of his final thoughts on the author’s dilemma for the last few pages – a peroration that is as effective as any other passage in conveying his state of mind as an author who became invested in his story and frustrated by his inability to ever get it truly “right.” HHhH thus is more like two nested stories, the outer one of which is about the inner story, with differing styles and levels of interest in both of them, working well together but carrying some of the frustrating hallmarks of all postmodern literature.

Next up: I’m halfway through Clifford Simak’s Hugo winner Way Station.

All the Light We Cannot See.

Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, defies the standards for that prize in its complete lack of American characters or themes, but the work itself overcame the prize rules’ stated preference for a work “dealing with American life” with exquisite plotting and searing character portraits. The novel seems ripe for sentiment – I can only imagine what Hollywood will do to the conclusion – but Doerr manages to dance on the line separating emotion from mawkishness without crossing it, building up to a single moment lasting no more than two pages that brings his two protagonists together in one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in years.

Doerr gives us two narrative threads for most of the book, adding a third a bit later on to help tie the first two together, with each of the pair of primary subplots featuring one of his two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind 12-year-old girl who flees Paris with her father, a locksmith at the French Museum of Natural History, when the Nazis invade in 1940; and Werner, a German orphan who saves himself from a life in the mines by showing an early aptitude for working with electronics, especially radio transmitters. Marie and her father, who may have been entrusted with a priceless jewel from the museum’s collection, end up in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the northern coast of Brittany that was badly damaged by Allies near the end of World War II; when her father is taken prisoner by the Nazis on questionable pretenses, her care falls to her shell-shocked great-uncle Étienne, who has a sizable radio transmitter in his home’s hidden top floor. Werner ends up in a draconian military academy before a little age-modification lands him a spot in a roving military unit that’s assigned to locate and snuff out Resistance radio transmitters within occupied Europe. When Marie and her great-uncle join the Resistance and begin such transmissions, it’s obvious that Werner’s unit will end up in Saint-Malo to try to find the source … but she’s also sought by the Nazi treasure-hunter von Rumpel, who believes her father took the genuine diamond and is desperate to retrieve it before he runs out of time.

The story comes to the reader in very short bursts, too short to be called chapters, with interludes toward the very end of the war interspersed throughout the longer sections that lead from 1934 (when Marie-Laure and Werner are still little children) to the war’s outbreak, eventually catching up to the second timeline in the interludes where all three subplots collide in Saint-Malo. Flashbacks are themselves a tired technique, but the brevity of each passage gives the novel the quick-reading feel of an epistolary work, and in this case there’s value in forewarning the reader of the tension of the final denouement while also tipping us off that certain secondary characters might not be around for it.

Doerr relies a bit too much on coincidence to deepen the tie between Werner and Marie, a detail that in some ways overshadows the generosity of spirit in their single encounter, where Werner takes multiple actions that save Marie’s life. However, he avoids so many other hackneyed devices both in the path to that scene and in that meeting itself that still manages to explore new emotional territory, looking into the possibility of kindness within the heart of darkness in ways I’ve only seen before in fictionalized parent-child relationships. (All the Light is also one of the only contemporary novels for adults I’ve read recently that has very little sex or profanity, both of which are frequent and overused crutches in modern adult fiction.)

Marie-Laure is a bit romanticized, the innocent girl waiting for one of various men – her father, her uncle, and eventually Werner – to save her, but Werner is a fully-formed character with ambition and remorse, driven by emotional and physical needs to succeed at his task yet haunted by knowledge of the results of his triangulations and scarred repeatedly by assaults on the shreds of his innocence. He is the moral center of the book, this teenaged Nazi soldier through whom Doerr shows us the horrors of war via an unusual and new lens.

Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo winner Lord of Light.

Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have a scouting blog up on Cuban free agent Eddy Julio Martinez and other Cuban and Dominican prospects for Insiders; Martinez has reached an agreement to sign with the Cubs pending a physical. I also held my regular Klawchat yesterday.

A friend of mine who works as a therapist, dealing in particular with trauma victims, has been recommending Viktor Frankl’s short book Man’s Search for Meaning, which comprises a long essay he composed while in concentration camps in World War II as well as a shorter piece on logotherapy, his concept and program for working with psychiatric patients. I’m rather unqualified to ‘review’ this book in any meaningful way, but since the book is so highly regarded and often cited in polls where readers name the most influential books they’ve read, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

As you might imagine, the first part of the book, where Frankl details much of the suffering he saw and endured at the hands of the Nazis – his entire family, including his pregnant wife, was killed during the Holocaust – is somewhat difficult to read, even though Frankl takes a fairly neutral tone. He received some slightly favorable treatment because he had a medical background and could take on tasks other prisoners couldn’t, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the misery of his situation. Frankl’s point in writing this brief memoir is to explore the ways in which the human mind can survive suffering and find reasons to continue to live even in hopeless situations. Although he gives his ideas on the meaning of life, the book delves more into the specifics of the title – the search itself, the refusal to give up, and the physical consequences he witnessed when a fellow prisoner lost his will to live.

Finding meaning in suffering is a longstanding subject of debate and expostulation in religion and philosophy, with Frankl taking a particularly pragmatic view of the matter. In his view, there is less point in asking “why” than in finding new reasons for hope or optimism even in apparently hopeless situations. Prisoners who could find meaning in helping others, or in sustaining themselves on the chance they’d one day be released and reunited with loved ones, fared better mentally and physically than those who gave themselves up to the awful reality of their lives in the camps. This forms one of the key parts of his program of therapy – helping patients understand why they do have meaning in their lives, often more than they realize.

Several passages describe the presence of a senior group of prisoners who in some ways helped run the camp in exchange for special privileges or favors like cigarettes, liquor, or additional food. We often refer to the Stanford Prison Experiment to explain such brutal behavior, but is there a more stark example of this awful capacity of our personalities, to join with those who would enslave, torture, and kill our relatives, friends, countrymen, fellow worshipers, just to save our own skins?

The foreword to the current edition available on Kindle was written by the rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, who calls Frankl’s book “a profoundly religious book.” I agree to an extent that the book has a spiritual core, although it is not limited to any specific religion, and I think the book can be read, understood, and appreciated by a secular audience. Frankl does not rely on a deity or an afterlife to make his arguments that life here can have meaning even when meaning has left the building; his arguments rely on emotion and psychiatric tenets, none of which requires religious belief or background to follow, which means Man’s Search for Meaning is a book for anyone interested in fundamental questions of why we are the way we are, and how to find that meaning even in situations that appear devoid of it.

Next up: I’m a bit behind on reviews yet again, having finished Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, on the flight back from Santo Domingo, and am now reading Vladimir Sorokin’s very odd novel Day of the Oprichnik.

A Bell for Adano.

John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.

Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.

While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.

So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Hanns and Rudolf.

I only became aware of Thomas Harding’s new book, Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, because of Harding’s recent piece in the Washington Post about the Kommandant’s daughter, Brigitte, who still lives in northern Virginia. The book’s publisher reached out to me after I tweeted the link to the article and sent me a review copy, which I tore through this weekend because I couldn’t bear to put the book down.

The subtitle is a little misleading, as this book isn’t so much the story of a chase as it is a pair of contemporary portraits of two German men whose lives headed in opposite directions with the rise of the Third Reich, setting them on courses that end in one hunting down and capturing the other after the war’s conclusion. The chase itself isn’t long, so most of the book is spent getting us up to that point. Harding’s achievement here is making both biographies interesting enough that the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages – and in presenting Rudolf in a neutral fashion even though he’s one of the worst monsters in our species’ history.

That Rudolf is Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw the construction of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and devised the scheme where the pesticide Zyklon-B was used to exterminate Jews and other prisoners in huge numbers, with well over a million killed at the camp. Höss’ eventual devolution into a calm, apathetic architect of history’s most efficient mass producer of death starts from early childhood – including a fanatical father who died young and a lack of any close ties to family members – but also reveals a tremendous amount about the “just following orders” mentality of so many members of the SS, the Nazi Party, and of the German population as a whole. While running Auschwitz, Höss would return home each night to his villa just beyond the camp’s walls, where he lived with his wife and five children in a luxurious house staffed with slaves drawn from the prison.

Hanns, the hero of the story and the author’s great-uncle, is Hanns Alexander, a German Jew born into fortunate circumstances that would largely disappear before he fled to the UK with his family in 1936. Left without a state after the Nazi regime revoked their citizenship, Hanns chose to join the British army, which set up a separate unit for refugees seeking to fight their former countries that allowed them to serve in non-combat roles (because, you know, can’t trust ’em). After the war ended, Hanns became a private hunter of war criminals in his spare time, eventually parlaying that into a formal role that led him to recapture the puppet ruler of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, and to earn a command to track down Höss himself. Hanns’ own drive to fight against Germany – more than fighting for Britain or the allies – derived from the personal injustice that he underwent when he and his family had to flee from the Nazis, as well as the more general sense of outrage from the massive crimes the German state and its people had committed against the Jews and other so-called enemies of the state.

Höss’ testimony played a pivotal role in the Nuremberg trials because of his willingness to admit his own role in the Holocaust and in the chain of command that made the mass murders possible, which means Hanns himself contributed to the convictions and executions of many of the surviving leaders of the Third Reich. Höss comes across as a weirdly complex character, a loving father and family man who beat down his rare compunctions over gassing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children because he refused to show weakness to his superiors or to those under his command. Did he do this for fear for his own safety in a regime where guards who showed mercy to prisoners would be beaten or killed? Or was he simply nursing his own desire for success and praise by trying to set an example of fanaticism that others would revere?

The conflict between Höss’ work and family selves, his apparent apathy toward his victims, and his unclear motivation for his actions at Auschwitz make him the far more compelling character than Alexander, whose life is much easier to understand. Hanns watched fellow Germans pull the rug out from under his comfortable life, and his personal fury combined with that from his moral compass to turn him into a rabid Nazi hunter, yet one who declined to discuss his role in capturing these criminals for most of the rest of his life. It’s a simple narrative for a man’s life, one that’s easy to fathom. Turning into a cockroach the way Höss did is a lot harder to understand, and it’s part of why I couldn’t avert my eyes from Hanns and Rudolf until he’d been hanged.

I’ve been busy plowing through more titles from the Bloomsbury 100 as well, but nothing that merited a long post here. Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which draws parallels between the swift decline of a noble Austrian family and that of the Hapsburgs’ reign, heading into the disaster of World War I that led to the breakup of their sprawling, unwieldy empire. It dragged horribly, however, with Dickensian descriptions and an absurd amount of moralizing over peccadilloes that barely merit mention today.

Theodor Fontaine’s Effi Briest, named by Thomas Mann as one of the six most essential novels ever written, was a stronger read, even though the morality play also fails to resonate today. Based on a true story from the late 1800s, Effi Briest tells the title character’s tragic history from her arranged marriage to a man much her senior through her extramarital affair with the lothario Crampas to her divorce and fall from grace. It’s far more believable than the similar Madame Bovary and less prolix than Anna Karenina, two similarly-themed novels, working more along the lines of The Awakening, another novel of adultery where the plight of the woman in a male-dominated, moralistic society takes center stage.

Eugenie Grandet is the second Balzac novel I’ve read, along with Old Goriot, both part of his Human Comedy novel sequence. It’s another tragedy, this one the story of Eugenie’s miserly father and how his parsimony destroys his wife, himself, and, even after his death, his daughter, when even a small count of generosity would have saved them all. I’ve found Balzac’s prose to be his great strength – I enjoy his phrasing and descriptions yet never find them slow or monotonous – but the story in Eugenie Grandet had less of the dark comedy that made Old Goriot a better read.

Next up: Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.

The Ministry of Fear.

My quick reactions post to the Futures Game went up last night for Insiders.

I’m a huge fan of Graham Greene’s works, having read more novels by him than any other writer not named Wodehouse or Christie. Greene is probably best remembered today for his “Catholic novels” – a group that includes The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and my favorite of them, The Power and the Glory – and if you look for his works in any bookstore, independent or big-box, that’s mostly what you’ll find. Yet Greene also produced suspense novels he derided as “entertainments,” mostly spy novels, which varied from straight-ahead intrigues (The Confidential Agent) to parodic works with serious themes below the humor (Our Man in Havana, which is on the Klaw 100).

The Ministry of Fear is one of Greene’s entertainments, a serious spy novel that revolves around a bit of mistaken identity to delve into existential questions of identity and memory and the morality of crime and murder in wartime. It is tremendously entertaining, with an everyman protagonist who becomes a hunted man when he inadvertently wins a cake intended for an actual spy at a local fair, and well-paced, while avoiding the sense of empty calories you might find in a more formulaic, pulp-fiction spy story.

Arthur Rowe is a bit of a sad-sack widower who enters a fortune-teller’s tent at that local fair, a brief decision that lands him the cake and a significant amount of trouble, especially when he refuses to give or sell the cake to its intended recipient. This coincidence puts Arthur on the run after an attempt on his life and a frame-up for a crime committed with his own schoolboy’s knife, bringing him into conflict with a past of his own that he’s trying to escape, even as his mind refuses to give him freedom.

A good spy or suspense novel needs its share of twists, and Greene gives us several, most of which I haven’t mentioned here to avoid spoilers. There are at least five major plot points that might count as surprises, although I thought the denouement was rather predictable given what came before – mostly that we run out of culprits, but also because the genre teaches us to look for the most shocking answer to the novel’s main question. Greene sustains The Ministry of Fear in spite of that one foreseeable outcome because of the depth of his characterization of Rowe, a more complex man under the surface than Greene’s initial presentation of him would indicate. Rowe is emotionally exhausted, looking for closure, careening from moments of great inner strength to severe defeatism. He can be clueless, but in crises shows quicker resolve and remarkable deductive reasoning skills. He’s full of pity, but is not as pathetic as he’d seem, even flashing a cold streak when that will get him what he wants or needs. He’s neither hero nor antihero, a protagonist whom the reader wants to ‘win’ but whose terms of victory are not quite what we’d want for him.

The Ministry of Fear can’t succeed as a spy novel unless it gets the “spy” part right, and I believe that it does so with a plot that moves quickly with sufficient narrative greed to pull the reader forward, as well as enough twists and turns to keep the suspense level high (until that one climactic twist). It works as a novel because Greene was almost completely incapable of writing a novel, even an unserious one, without creating at least one strong character, while using the same voice and phrasing that made him a master of English fiction.

In between the last blog post and this one, I read three classics from the Bloomsbury 100 list: Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. None seemed worth a full post; Franklin’s book was the most interesting, a very early work of feminist literature where the young protagonist chafes under the societal restrictions that prevent her from receiving the same education or opportunities as men her age. Written when Franklin was just 21, the book describes the efforts of her stand-in main character to develop her independence when her fate is determined by others around her, nearly all of them male. She has but one decision she can make for herself, and makes it even if the world around her would view it as foolish.

Next up: Herman Koch’s 2013 novel The Dinner.

The Tin Drum.

In case you missed it, I did a redraft of the first round of the 2002 Rule 4 draft for ESPN.com yesterday.

Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum stands for critics as one of the greatest novels in German literature, ranking 39th on The Novel 100, 70th on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, and ranking fifth on this list of the best German novels of last century. Reading it for leisure doesn’t quite measure up to reading it as literature, and I believe a good number of allusions flew over my head due to my unfamiliarity with German (and Polish) history, but I hope I can recognize a novel’s greatness even if I wouldn’t say I loved reading it.

The drum of the title refers to a toy drum received by the narrator and main character, Oskar, for his third birthday. Oskar, precocious, cynical, and perhaps delusional, claims his personality was fully developed at birth, and at the age of three he stages an accident to prevent himself from growing physically, giving him an unusual vantage point for seeing and fooling the world, as he can play the innocent child to escape from mortal danger (even as he sends others, including both of the men he suspects of being his biological father, to their deaths), and uses that ruse to survive the German invasion of his hometown of Danzig/Gdansk, the assault on the Polish Post Office, Kristallnacht, World War II, and its immediate aftermath.

Oskar is mischievous, often devious, and has a strong instinct for self-preservation that he executes with one of his two great skills, using his voice to shatter glass, often to get what he wants but sometimes merely for the pleasure of destroying (although he might actually view it as creating, as a form of art). His other skill is to communicate via his drum: By playing the instrument, he can tell extensive stories and communicate his desires even before he’s able to speak – and he can pretend that he’s unable to speak for years beyond the point when he’s learned to do so.

Aside from the rampant symbolism – the drum, art, glass, aromas (Oskar has a hypersensitive sense of smell), Oskar’s obsession with his heritage despite its lack of clarity, and more – the brilliance of The Tin Drum is its use of humor and picaresque elements to lampoon Naziism, the church (and its complicity with the regime), and the willingness of so many Germans to go along with the regime. The book is sometimes crude and bawdy, but it’s in the service of dark, biting humor that tears apart Grass’s targets, such as the Nazi soldiers rotely building a wall and entombing small animals in it. You may often wish to avert your eyes (the horse’s head scene comes to mind), but these passages tend to be the book’s most powerful both on initial reading and after the book is done.

That said, it’s a tough read for two major reasons. One is simply that German syntax, even in this new, improved translation, doesn’t read that well to my English-reared mind. The other is that Oskar rambles, leading me to question whether he’s all there mentally or might even be unreliable as a narrator, producing long passages where nothing happens and I felt like I was reading in circles. The lengthy gaps between passages of action, or humor, or even dialogue, made it a tough slog, especially the final 100-150 pages – ordinarily a time of acceleration as the plot nears its conclusion. With The Tin Drum more of a history of a fictional character than a traditional linear narrative, there are no major plot points to resolve, and Oskar only undergoes one significant (albeit very significant) transformation in the book. It’s a cerebral novel where Oskar has some realizations but generally refuses to grow up, drawing not just from the picaresque tradition but from coming-of-age novels as well.

Next up: Alan Bradley’s second Flavia de Luce novel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.