THEY'RE REAL DICKENS

Enjoy. It's dreadful, but quite short.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews?, by Götz Aly

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The more I read about the causes of the Holocaust (about 1000 pages in the last few years, including Götz Aly’s previous book Hitler’s Beneficiaries), the more I am convinced that Hitler was not the aberration we think him to be. This is not to say that his deeds are any less heinous or evil; rather, it’s an acknowledgment that the feelings and ideas and motives which drove and allowed the Holocaust are not limited to Germany in 1942. It’s a rejection of the comfortable lie that we can have all of the good things that Hitler promised (and he promised all of the “good” progressive things — social equality, wealth redistribution, massive welfare programs, etc)  without having to pay the price one way or another. Fortunately, we have Götz Aly to tell us the hard truths.

I was a bit worried that, having read Hitler’s Beneficiaries only a few months ago, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? would be somewhat repetitive in its ideas and statistics. Happily, this is not the case at all, and this work — from 2011 but newly translated into English — is just as much required reading on the subject as is Beneficiaries.

Aly’s guiding questions in this book are these: How did German anti-Semites justify their resentment, envy, and hatred? What did contemporaries, both Jewish and Gentile, think about the motivation and burgeoning popularity of the anti-Semitic movement? In which social, political, economic, and war-related situations did animosity toward Jews especially increase, and why? He examines what initially made Germany so attractive to Jews, causing them to move there in large numbers and to thrive. He gives much consideration to the Treaty of Versailles and its effect on the German people, but he never allows it to be turned into an excuse.

This is a somewhat more personal work than Hitler’s Beneficiaries because Aly uses a lot of family letters and other documents to illustrate his arguments. His evaluation of them is honest and useful. But what impressed me most is the wisdom that Aly brings to his analysis, which was most evident to me in his discussions of envy. In my opinion, this book would be worth reading just for his insights about envy and how poisonous it is, as well as his cautioning against utopian philosophies. This is an absolutely necessary book.

My one complaint is Aly’s use of the word “Christian” as seemingly a catch-all for every German who wasn’t a Jew. I often couldn’t tell if he was using it synonymously with “Gentile” or as actually meaning a German who explicitly claimed Christian faith (of course, I’d argue that any person who condoned the Nazis wasn’t really a Christian at all, whether they claimed to be or not). It’s possible this was a translation issue, but I can’t tell.

I will give the final word to Aly himself: “The mortal sin of envy — together with a belief in collective happiness, modern science, and specific techniques of political rule — is what made the systematic mass murder of European Jews possible. There is no way around the pessimistic conclusion that evil can never be quarantined once and for all in a way that would rule out such horrors. Another event structurally similar to the Holocaust could still occur. Those who want to reduce the danger of its happening should work to understand the complex human preconditions of the Holocaust. And they should not kid themselves into thinking that the anti-Semites of the past were completely different from who we are today.”

 

Note:  The publisher provided me with a free review copy. Quotations are subject to change.

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The Book of Jonah, by Joshua Max Feldman

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I know, I know:  a one-star review can’t be trusted/balanced/objective, etc., as it’s obviously just a screed (or something like that).  Believe it or not, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into this rating; despite my personal dislike of this book (all the more disappointing because I was rather excited to read it), I am reluctant to be harsh in rating and reviewing it. (Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age.)  But the thing is, I think this book is a pretty big failure in its current form (which is an ARC, so the text may be subject to change), and to give it two stars would imply that it is successful in some small aspect.  And, after reflection, I just don’t think it is.

On the back cover, this book calls itself a “brilliantly conceived retelling of the Bible’s book of Jonah”.  And here is the big problem:  this novel does not have the scope or depth or wisdom of an epic, biblical tale. Neither does it have the craft, character, or insight of a successful work of literary fiction. And it certainly doesn’t have the compelling plot or pace of popular fiction. So, really, where can it land?  How can I give it a second star?

Much of the blame should rest on the editors, if there were any (I heard publishers are seriously cutting back on editing services).  It’s easiest to demonstrate this by talking about the prose itself, which is where, in my opinion,  The Book of Jonah falls most short of the “literary fiction” ideal. In the first 50 pages, there are at least 132 adverbs. In the last 50 pages, where one would typically expect an improvement in style, there are over 200 adverbs, all ending in the usual -ly.  Ok, yes, I know, I’m some kind of neurotic to be counting adverbs (and I used one myself just now), but the point is that Feldman relies on them. His favorites are really, eventually, actually, immediately, probably, and finally; at least one of these shows up, like clockwork, on every page.  Adverbs can, of course, be effectively deployed, but for the most part, their use in fiction means laziness, a lack of creativity, or redundancy. An example from The Book of Jonah:  “At a crosswalk he had to leap — phone clutched tightly — over a massive puddle at a clogged storm drain.”  As opposed to something being clutched loosely?  Trust your verbs to communicate your meaning, and if they can’t be trusted, switch them out for better verbs or more vivid descriptions. Don’t just add lazy, obvious modifiers and call it good. (Please don’t add even stupider descriptions though, like this from pg. 12:  “Patrick nodded, a pair of dips of his long head.”  It seems Feldman thinks nodding is an obscure action, unknown to most humans, which must be explained to his audience.)  So much for his prose. So much for his editors.

The weak writing could be overlooked, perhaps, if the characters or the story were compelling — if they were a fraction as compelling as the real story of Jonah.  Alas, they are not. The main character, Jonah Jacobstein, is unlikeable in the beginning and throughout the middle of the book; in the last pages, he becomes less of a jerk and more of a personality-less sad sack. Judith, the other main character, is somewhat more interesting; her introduction was the single chapter I enjoyed. Unfortunately, her character development throughout the rest of the book is uneven and, towards the end, feels very rushed. She becomes not much more than a prop in Jonah’s character arc, which is funny because she accuses him of treating her as exactly that; the real problem is the author seems to treat her the same way.  I wish her story had been given the time and detail it deserves, perhaps with Jonah appearing as a footnote.  (Don’t get me started on the villain, a total caricature of a Big Bad Republican Businessman™ who pops in out of nowhere and disappears just as fast, not around long enough to make any impression whatsoever — which is why Judith’s big moment fizzles like a defective firework.)

And finally:  the story.  It’s pretty incredible how the biblical tale of Jonah fits more substance into 3 pages than The Book of Jonah manages in 333. I’m not being sly.  I don’t mean that in the sense that the Bible is a holy book and therefore inherently of more consequence than this novel.  I mean it honestly:  I am actually amazed by how subtle and complex the real Jonah is, as portrayed in a few hundred words, in comparison to the flatness of Jonah Jacobstein and the ultimate mediocrity of his quest, as portrayed in 80,000 words (give or take). And I think this flatness — this smallness of soul — is the result of Feldman taking inspiration from a profound and dense tale and impoverishing its idea.  Jacobstein’s visions are entirely vague in meaning. Nothing is really asked of him or communicated to him (God as a person is essentially removed from this “retelling”).  He gets uncomfortable and thinks, Hey, maybe I shouldn’t be a cheater, a liar, a scumbag, a thief! And the reader thinks, You needed some bad-trip visions to tell you that? Deep, man, deep!

And this is basically this book’s deep thought:  “It was God or it wasn’t”.  Sure, it throws around words like “holy” and “faith” and even “sin” (once) but doesn’t seem to actually consider what these words mean, what these things are.  I’m not asking the book to agree with me about what they are — not by any means! — I’m just asking it to consider them, to turn them over in its pages, to wrestle with these ideas and come away bloody and let me see it, to give me something new to think about, to let me see faith and faithfulness in another man so I can know them, and know myself .

So, er, this was a frustrating book. I found it aimless and poorly paced, insubstantial and incomplete. The prose was mediocre, in general, and below par for literary fiction (my gosh, the adverbs!). Jonah Jacobstein was unlikeable; Judith was wasted; the villain is a copy-paste job seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. A semi-serious subplot was left entirely unresolved (and not in the good way). The main part of the novel ends with 17 rhetorical questions. 17!

For a story claiming to be a retelling of a biblical epic, I’m afraid The Book of Jonah is a pretty facile affair.

Note:  I was given a free review copy by the publisher.

Oct 2013 Read-a-Thon!

It’s that time of year again:  in a scant 10 hours, the 2013 October Read-a-Thon, founded by Dewey, will begin. For a full 24 hours, I will read and blog, with occasional breaks for eating and caffeine consumption.

I’m a bit constrained in my book choices, due to my 2013 10 in 10 challenge, so I’m going to try to knock out most of my Pre-1000AD reads during the Read-a-Thon. Also, I’ve got three books that publishers sent me to review, and I need to read those sooner rather than later. So, here’s my TBR pile for the readathon:

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Obviously I won’t get to them all — or even most of them — but hopefully I can make a dent. (This post will be updated with mini challenges/questions/etc).

Read the rest of this entry »

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

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Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film (out 08/20/13), is a creeping, cinematic work of literary fiction that is at once more accessible than House of Leaves and more disciplined than Gone Girl.

Scott McGrath was a well-respected investigative journalist until he broke the cardinal rule of journalism and went public without the facts. The victim of his slander was the very private cult film director Stanislas Cordova, who promptly sued McGrath into ignominy. But that was five years ago, and McGrath has just gotten word that Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, has thrown herself down an elevator shaft. McGrath is determined to discover the truth about Cordova and his daughter (or is he just addicted to the chase?), and his pursuit is bound to take him some very dark places indeed.

That is the setup for this complex puzzle of a book, and to give away anything more would damage Night Film‘s effect. So it’s a bit of a difficult book to review.

The first few hundred pages excellently set the stage, planting uncanny seeds about the nature of Cordova the man and his rather disturbing films (reminding me of Cronenberg, Lynch, and von Trier). The tension builds steadily as McGrath begins to piece together Ashley Cordova’s life and final few days. In fact, this book starts so well and with such an intriguing premise and character in Cordova that any way the story developed – and any big revelation – was bound to be a little disappointing. And it’s true, I felt myself being let down the further on I read, though it did end as well as it probably could.

McGrath as a character seems to have little inner life, and the other main characters aren’t much better. I had no feelings, positive or negative, about them and thus didn’t care too strongly about their physical well-being (I was only in it for the Truth). Because of this, I don’t think this book will have any lasting emotional effect on me (though Cordova may haunt my dreams). I found Pessl’s overuse of italics incredibly irritating and rather perplexing. Due to its extensive featuring of modern technology, Night Film is timely but probably not timeless. And I’m not convinced that the book really earns its 600 pages.

So it’s not without flaws. But it’s intelligent, frequently chilling, well-crafted, and very film literate. The time that Pessl put into it is evident. Perhaps it’s best to use the novel’s own words in summation: Night Film is sovereign (in its genre), deadly (seeming), (im)perfect.

Note:  The publisher provided me with an early copy for review.

What Is Marriage?, by Sherif Girgis

*I am a bit hesitant to post this because this is not a political blog, and this will be the second post in a row that may be construed as political. Rest assured it is not, and Dilatory Bibliophile will always be about books first.*

Today, SCOTUS ruled on the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton. I won’t go into the details, as they are readily available elsewhere. I only mention it because it renders this book even more timely than it was.

I will keep this short. If you are interested in a completely secular defense of marriage being the union of one man and one woman, then there is no better than this short book, What is Marriage? Man and Woman:  A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George.

Again, it is entirely secular. It argues from reason and philosophy, not religion. The book does not view homosexuality as immoral in any way. It simply argues that marriage is the “comprehensive union” of one man and one woman, and it is in society’s best interest to affirm that through the law.

If you are interested in this debate at all, you would do well to read this book, no matter what side you’re on. Be warned, though, that it is written to people who seek to base their opinions on sound reason and not emotional appeal.

And should any reader come along who has a recommendation of a similarly argued book from the opposite point of view (that is, a defense of “gay marriage” that is based on reason and not emotion), please leave it in a comment.

The Writing On The Wall, by W.D. Wetherell

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In 2008, Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game,  published an article which argued against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. The backlash was immediate. Many people who once professed to be huge fans of the author vowed to never read or buy another of his books. There was plenty of name-calling. And more recently, when it was revealed that Card would be writing for new Superman comics, some comic stores announced they would not stock any future issues. The artist who was to work on the comic quit. DC eventually gave in and scrapped Card’s story altogether. Please stick with me; I’ll connect this to Wetherell’s The Writing on the Wall shortly.

I will not hide what might bias my thoughts here:  I’m conservative. And though there are many aspects of this that I could comment on, the thought that inevitably strikes me hardest is this:   when it comes to entertainment, liberals are spoiled. For whatever reasons, the creative sphere is undoubtedly dominated by people with strong liberal tendencies. This means that it is completely normal for me to encounter progressive ideas in the fiction I read, and usually these take the form of snide comments about conservatives. I’m not talking about knowing that the author is liberal — I pretty much assume that when I pick up contemporary fiction — I’m talking about actually seeing it in the text (which wasn’t the case with Ender’s Game, by the way). Do I abandon the book, write off the author, and instead cocoon myself in media that agrees with me? Of course not, for four reasons. First, because I believe in seeking to understand and reasonably engaging with viewpoints that differ from mine. Second, because books sometimes rise above their authors’ intentions. Third, because if the author is worth his salt, such things won’t affect the quality of the work itself. And fourth, because I just don’t have that privilege if I want to read widely, and that fourth point is what I’m getting at when I say liberals are spoiled. They have the luxury of boycotting conservative novelists because there are so few of them; they can tune out voices that differ because they aren’t very loud.

Bringing It All Back Home to this novel by W.D Wetherell:  for me, it is an absolute failure. Fiction written with an agenda rarely turns out well. (This is one reason that contemporary “Christian fiction” is usually kind of terrible.) Well, instead of literary, let’s call this book “liberal fiction”.  WDW has claimed to have “an extravagant belief in stories”, but, gosh, I can’t possibly discern such a belief through this 2012 novel’s shrieking ideology.

The saddest part is that the frame of the story is pretty compelling. Vera, recovering from some traumatic event unknown to the reader (until the end), retreats to her sister’s fixer-upper house, determined to both rebuild her life and remodel the 100-year-old home. As she removes the layers of wallpaper in the house, she discovers that two women before her, one around 1900 and the other around 1970,  have recorded their own personal traumas on the walls before papering over them. Of course, she is ready to make her own confession by the end of the novel. She writes her story on the wall before covering it, perhaps to be found by another pathetic housewife in another 50 years.

Really, that’s a pretty great setup for a book (it would be even better for a horror novel), and the obvious nod to Gilman is appreciated. But the quality of the execution naturally depends on the strength of the stories told by the different women. And it turns out that this is less the tale of three unique and compelling women with strong voices and real stories to tell and more a tour through liberal talking points which uses the women as communication props. The early story, circa 1900, is the least egregious, but it builds with the next (hint: Vietnam) and culminates in Vera’s own story, which was ridiculous and had me in a state of perpetual eye-roll (hint: 2004). The human element in this novel is completely overcome by the agenda, and Wetherell has nothing new to say. It’s too bad, really, since the prose is clean and readable, and it does keep you moving (I blew through it in an afternoon). What a waste of a great concept.

Boleto, by Alyson Hagy

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Hagy’s third novel is a mostly steady effort about a young horseman struggling to find the balance between sentimentality and reality.

Will Testerman has long been comfortable with his horses – from the old pony he bought as a boy to the new bright-eyed filly meant to be a serious investment in his future.  But he has some trouble with people.  At 23, after spending several homebound years caring for his ailing mother, Will is finally ready to establish himself as a respected horse trainer and make his way to a famous polo estancia in California. He believes the intelligent, dancing filly he buys at auction to be his ticket, but Will has not counted on the complexities of human interaction, the desires that compete within him, and the troubling role that money always plays in a man’s life.

Boleto is a quiet novel, very much reliant on character and light on plot. The description of horses and equestrian life are believable and familiar, rarely dipping into the sentimental anthropomorphizing that can characterize horse novels. The prose is fluid, readable, and frequently beautiful but never heart-stopping. As a character, Will is somewhat removed and bloodless. You never feel as though you know him, even though you are in his head. His motivations seem murky at times, but this may be true to his own lack of self-knowledge. Still, for the first two parts of the novel, the reader can feel a slow momentum building as Will moves with his filly towards an end he thinks he knows.

Unfortunately, the third part of the novel is something of a misstep as Hagy introduces characters and plot developments that seem to come out of nowhere and return to the same. A reader enjoying the early atmosphere and movements of the novel will likely find himself disappointed and perhaps confused by the third act. The ambiguity of Will’s character is no comfort in the end.

If you are a fan of horse stories and don’t mind if a novel doesn’t wrap up neatly or particularly well, then you may enjoy this readable, somewhat muted third novel by the author of Snow, Ashes.

ReadaThon 2013: Off To A Dreadful Start!

…And I’m finally awake and beginning to read. Only six hours late. Bugger.

I have about 130 pages of LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to finish, and then I plan to move on to The Child, by Pascale Kramer.

It’s That Time Again

Dewey’s biannual 24-hour Read-a-Thon is two weeks away, and sign-ups are open. 27 April is the day to avoid responsibilities, eschew obligations, and read yourself to exhaustion. Last year I finished six books, for a total of roughly 800 pages, and stayed up the entire 24 hours. I’m not sure I can beat that this year, but I’m damn well going to try.

Vampires In The Lemon Grove: Stories, by Karen Russell

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Oh dear. I think I’m done with Karen Russell. In fact, I am struggling to not give this a blistering one-star rating because, even though it’s not so bad to truly deserve it, I did find it insulting at times. And there was only one story that I could claim to like at all.

Is Russell getting worse with each book she publishes? I fear so. What was weird and wonderful and fresh in St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves (a book I loved and just recently bought new even though I’ve read it twice already) becomes downright formulaic and irritating in this collection. Russell’s stories are growing predictable, and for a writer like her — who so depends on a sort of unique wonderment — this is a death knell.

There are only eight stories in this collection. Most of them are at least 30 pages. One is 40 pages. One story, “The New Veterans”, is over 50 freakin’ pages long. I wonder how long they were before revisions; I can’t imagine she cut out much. And, in my opinion, they are absolutely the weaker for it. The book doesn’t show any improvement over the over-long, under-plotted Swamplandia! in this regard. Am I alone here? Just because her prose is beautiful doesn’t mean there isn’t usually too much of it.

The title story, which opens the collection, was decent, although I found it sort of removed and bloodless (har har). I liked the second story, “Reeling For The Empire”, though I found the main character unsympathetic. But each following story seemed worse than the last. Two of them — one in which U.S. presidents are reincarnated as horses and another which consists totally of “rules for Antarctic tailgating” and is not a story at all — were just…er, stupid. The longest story, “The New Veterans”, is repetitive and almost offensive in its treatment of Iraqi war veterans (I would be shocked if Russell has ever actually known well such a person). As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s sort of obvious that Russell herself felt the story dragging on and on because it ends so abruptly, with a serious inexplicable plot development that comes out of nowhere.

Finally, the peculiar voice of Karen Russell’s narrators is getting tiresome, as it is always, always the same. I felt it in Swamplandia!, too: it is impossible to immerse myself in her characters because they only ever speak with her vocabulary and quirky similes and turns of phrase. The final story is supposed to be told from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy, but I could barely finish it because it didn’t sound remotely like a male narrator or such a young one.

Anyway, I said at the end of my Swamplandia! review that, even though I didn’t like the book, I would read anything Karen Russell wrote in the future. Sadly, after this, that’s no longer the case. I only hope I am still able to enjoy St Lucy’s.