Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Gaps in history | The Rest is Noise | Review

I used to read a lot more nonfiction and history-focused books. As a kid, I loved reading books that dove into a specific topic and described them from top to bottom, getting into all the small details. And I don't even mean kid-lit history books; by the age of eleven, I was reading thick, dark tomes about the rise of white racism in the US, the history of Korea, Russian military tactics, British royal succession, and so on. Just as soon as I was capable of physically holding heavy books (thanks Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!), I was reading them, enaging with a broad range of topics but ultimately always falling back on history. I loved history, you see.

But at some point, my interests shifted, and there were many years in which I read very little nonfiction at all. Yes, there would be a few books a year, but they'd either be memoirs or contemporary texts (often feminist in nature). In recent years, with the WIT project, I've started reading a lot more historical feminist texts; still not quite history.

It was in those many years of nonfiction non-existence that The Rest is Noise languished on my shelves. And I do mean many years, as I bought the book back in 2012. When I purchased it, I was so certain that I would read it immediately. A history of 20th century classical music! Highly acclaimed! Fat and bursting with historical goodness!

So yes, it would take me six years to get around to reading The Rest is Noise. Interestingly, I ended up reading the book in one of the least musical periods of my life (or at least, least classical-music periods). If I used to listen to classical music for at least eight hours a week, these days I might listen to two hours a month. Times have changed (and also my workmates really hate classical music...). This meant that there were little references or musical cues that I found myself simply... not remembering. Since I read the book over Shabbat, I also couldn't check for them. It created this fascinating experience, in which I was reading all about music and couldn't actually engage with it. Probably the exact opposite effect of what Alex Ross was going for.

The problem with The Rest is Noise is ultimately that it proved incapable of fulfilling its own mission. The book's subtitle "Listening to the Twentieth Century" makes a very clear promise - to listen to the 20th century... - yet the book heavily focuses on the first half. You might reasonably argue that classical music has been on a decline in recent decades, but the fact is that a lot of unique and powerful classical music has emerged since 1960, and much of it goes unmentioned by Ross. His focus on the canonic composers means that readers can't even be exposed to something new; the book prefers to focus on that which is already known.

It also fails in regards to its treatment of women. You see, women almost don't exist in The Rest is Noise, and if they do, they're typically wives or muses or Alma Mahler, okay it's almost all Alma Mahler. There are only a handful (literally!) of women composers name-dropped throughout the entire book, only one prior to 1960, and the rest in a fairly rushed manner at the end. 

Now, you might again attempt to argue: "Sure, there are a few women composers, but none of them are famous! None of these women are particularly well known!" To which I say... you're right! But shouldn't a book that styles itself a history of 20th century at least attempt to rectify this awareness gap? To his credit, Ross does basically this with regards to black composers, devoting a chapter to the topic. It's a shallow recognition of the fact that yes, black composers have also always existed, but at least it's there. Women are largely left behind.

There are other odd gaps. Ross frequently points to the Jewishness of many of the 20th century's greatest composers, yet at no point tries to connect between this fact and Jewish culture. More often than not, a composer's Jewishness is used as a reminder that they had to flee Europe and that a chapter on WWII-classical music is coming up. It felt like an odd omission. Jewish culture is deeply musical, moreover it is a culture that strongly promotes education and intense work in order to best study. Of course a culture of this sort, when partially (or wholly) secularized, would become a dominant force in composing! (See also: 20th century Jewish scientists.)

What's frustrating is that I could very clearly see how Ross (and other readers, presumably) viewed his book. Here is a man, writing passionately about the topic that he loves most. Which is great! I'm glad that he was able to write this book. But the blunt truth is that this is not the book that I wanted to read. There was plenty here that I found fascinating, oh yes, and it made me crave a similar sort of text summarizing jazz's history, but it also made me grateful that I already own Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Because while Ross is comfortable overlooking a lot of pieces of history, I'm not really interested in reading it. A book doesn't have to be bad to be a disappointment, or at least not what I'm looking for. A lot has changed since 2012.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Restrained and indirect | John Williams' Augustus

John Williams is one of those authors I would not have been introduced to if not for book blogging. How could I fail to notice the universal acclaim Stoner received? How could that small tidbit just pass me over? It couldn't. At the end of the day, though, it's not Stoner that I read, but Williams' National Book Award winner Augustus, a relatively concise and restrained work of historical fiction that tells the story of Caesar Octavius through public notices, various "official reports" and the letters and journals of his friends and enemies. The result is an indirect view of an undeniably important figure in world history, and one that mostly kept me riveted.

From the very first page - from the Author's Note, essentially, which emphasizes the fact that Augustus is "a work of the imagination" and that almost all of "the documents which constitute this novel are of my own invention" - Williams sets a tone. It's a somewhat lofty tone, to be perfectly frank, placing the already secondhand story another step away from the reader. But it mostly works. Williams does an excellent job of changing the style a little for each narration, giving certain letters a little more bite than others, giving some journals scattered thoughts that are believable given the circumstances, giving certain characters more airs, while others remain firmly grounded. It creates a wholly believable environment very quickly, and rather effectively.

Augustus is the best kind of historical fiction: even if you aren't too familiar with the history of the times, you'll be able to enjoy it. And then, at the end, you'll immediately want to know what was accurate, what was glossed over, what's disputed... and so this 300-paged long book eventually leads to more studying and research than previously expected. I must respect any book that does that.

Augustus' strength lies, though, in its characters. This is the nature of historical fiction - the story remains generally the same across all books. The difficulty is in creating breathing, believable characters for readers to become acquainted with. Williams does this nicely. It is easy to understand Livia's motivations. It is easy to understand Julia's frustrations. It is easy to see Maecenas' high-minded poetical view of the world. These characters, as well as the others, make Augustus a novel worth reading.

And then, of course, there's Octavius himself. Augustus himself. Viewed almost exclusively through the eyes of others, Octavius is a contradictory character, constantly changing and oddly inconsistent. He remains thoughtful and intelligent throughout his life, but nothing else remains constant: he is both quiet and forceful. He is both proactive and hesitant. He is a human character, if a distant one for most of the book. This changes at the end of the book, when the excellent descriptions of Octavius' old age warmly capture the struggles and sorrows of outliving everyone you ever knew and loved.

Having heaped all this praise on the book, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I didn't not actually love Augustus. There was something missing. The restrained quality of the storytelling made it a little distant at times. The clean, smooth writing lacked a certain type of passion. Something mysterious about Augustus left me a little cold, preventing me from giving this one a full-throated, "best thing ever" recommendation, but I can certainly recommend it warmly. Augustus is intelligent, finely written historical fiction. And it's convinced me that John Williams is indeed the writer everyone has always said he is. Time to read Stoner.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interesting is not enough | The Informers

I don't recall where I first encountered Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers, but at some point it stumbled across my radar. Maybe I saw it at the library. Maybe I never even heard of it. Eventually I bought the book in the Hebrew translation. Eventually I also read it. I did both without really knowing anything about the book, going in mostly blind and allowing myself to get swept in another mysterious story that wasn't bogged down by expectations or overly revealing plot points.

Even with this advantage, The Informers disappoints. It's a book that is based on a surprisingly interesting aspect of world history (Colombia's part in World War II), and deals with a lot of big, important issues. It looks at a difficult history and delves into the mistakes people make, and the consequences of those actions. But it deals with these issues clumsily. For all its fascinating premise, for all its historical relevance, The Informers stumbles on the very basics - storytelling, writing, and character development.

The Informers is written in a strange style, and in a strange tense. The book alternates between standard first person, to first person telling actual first person narrator, to third person omnipotent, to first person omnipotent. It's weird, and jarring, and rather ineffective. The reason for this writing style is because Vasquez lets his characters tell very long stories, essentially straight-narrating the main plot of the book. But it doesn't work. Forgetting the fact that it doesn't sound believable in the least, the layers get confusing and eventually the whole structure ends up feeling clogged and awkward. It doesn't work.

The narration problems spill over into other fields. There are three truly main characters - Gabriel Santoro the son (the narrator), Gabriel Santoro the father, and family friend Sarah. Sarah is the primary source of stories for Santoro the son - she is the one who goes off on incredibly detailed stories from forty years earlier. Yet despite the sheer amount of pages she narrates, she remains a fairly distant character as whole. All of the characters are like that. Santoro the son is dry and not particularly appealing, Santoro the father is vague and unreliable, and other side characters remain fairly bland and/or undeveloped. Characters are viewed without passion and through a cold, distant lens. It puts the story even further away from the reader, making it very difficult to truly appreciate.

Then there's the fact that the story drags on. And on. Vasquez has a slightly rambling style, and by the end of the book, I couldn't always understand why certain scenes or incidents were worthy of attention. It felt uncomfortably incoherent, in desperate need of a better structure and some harsh editing. The Informers may be fascinating stuff, but at the end of the day, it's a fairly bad book.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Two views of the Great War

Several months ago, I read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young. It's a book that compares two realities of the Great War: the men who go fight and the women they leave behind. Though I was not wholly impressed by My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, I did very much appreciate Young's focus on the civilian struggles of the war through the eyes of the nurses. Young's uncompromisingly grim descriptions of the trenches themselves were also noteworthy, creating a vivid and powerful image of the times.

To a certain degree, Christian Signol's Un matin sur la Terre (which I read in a Hebrew translation and does not appear to be available in English) follows this same idea. Like Young's novel, Un matin sur la Terre is as much about the women who do not go to war as it is about the three men in the trenches. Like Young's novel, Signol tackles larger issues of class differences. Like Young's novel, Un matin sur la Terre travels back-and-forth between the men and women.

The similarities end there. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a romance in many regards of the word: it delves heavily into the romantic relationships between the couples, it tells a grand sweeping story, and its style is somewhat richer and heavier. Despite more explicitly explaining the love stories behind its couples, Un matin sur la Terre is not, on the other hand, a particularly romantic book. It's quieter, slower, and more subtly suspenseful. Young tells her story linearly; Signol opts for a reminiscing style that often loops around itself, as husband and wife remember the same event from a slightly different angle.

The biggest distinctions between the books, however, lie in the similarities. Truth is, I enjoyed Un matin sur la Terre a great deal more than My Dear I Wanted to Tell You partly because of its smaller scale and significantly fuller character development. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You felt awkwardly characterized and even more clumsily romanticized; the couples were neither well-developed, nor justified in their so-called love. In Un matin sur la Terre, the focus on the couples' love felt a great deal more 1915-style: indeed, one of the aspects I liked least about the book was the subtle sexism. The men seek to protect the women, the women seek protection. Though each wife is as developed a character as her husband (and in some cases, more), certain old-fashioned thoughts filtered down, giving the book a more authentic, but also ostensibly sexist feel.

The difference in the focus on class differences is again stark. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You bases much of its premise on a cross-class romance and the ramifications of it. Signol, meanwhile, presents three couples who each reside in three different aspects of French society in the early 20th century. One couple comes from the working class, another comes from peasantry and both have risen to become teachers, and the third belongs to the wealthier class. In presenting three stories side-by-side, Signol can provide a full and honest image of French society, without attempting to falsely modernize it (as was the feeling I got from My Dear I Wanted to Tell You).

I don't deny that both books have their strong points. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is brilliant when describing the trenches and the post-war treatment of wounded, even if it fails somewhat in other regards. Un matin sur la Terre is old-fashioned in style and taste, meanwhile, but does a much better job of creating characters. Both novels end semi-predictably, with Young taking an optimistic view and Signol pulling out the anticipated twist the book's tension consistently asked for (it's an abrupt ending, but truthfully it could end no other way). Though I am less inclined to recommend My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and have some practical difficulty recommending the not-yet-translated-into-English Un matin sur la Terre, together these two books paint an interesting portrait of France and England during the Great War. Anyone seeking a comparative case study for World War I need look no further.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Splendid sequel | Bring Up the Bodies

I'll admit: I was kind of avoiding reading Bring Up the Bodies. It wasn't just the anticipation (I haven't been this excited for a book to come out in years); rather, the sheer amount of praise heaped on Bring Up the Bodies scared me away. Everyone loved it. No one was disappointed. Many reviewers said it was better than Wolf Hall - which is a pretty huge hill to climb. But then I finished the book I was in the middle of. Then I read another. The guilt mounted. The eagerness to dive back into Cromwell's complex and intelligent world became overwhelming. I prepared myself for disappointment.

If I was disappointed by anything, it's the fact that I cannot prove any of the other reviewers wrong. Bring Up the Bodies is a flat-out brilliant book. And yes: it may in fact be better than Wolf Hall. My mind is blown, just suggesting that.

A lot of what makes Bring Up the Bodies so good can be found in its predecessor. Hilary Mantel's writing is something else. It's intelligent and clever without being pretentious, descriptive without feeling overblown, detailed and packed with information without being dense, and Mantel's imagination of Thomas Cromwell is genius. The story may be familiar to many on the surface, but presenting it through the eyes of a man history has not been particularly sympathetic towards makes for fascinating reading. The depth that all characters are given - familiar and not-so-familiar - sets Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies apart from the vast majority of fiction (historical or otherwise).

What may make Bring Up the Bodies a better book has something to do with the story it tells. Wolf Hall had a lot of introductions, a lot of stage-setting; it told a story that was spread out across decades. Bring Up the Bodies is significantly more focused, in a way that makes it a quicker, more satisfying read. And there's no point denying it: it's also a bit of a juicier, more dramatic story. Who can say no to that? Mantel has also sharpened her writing style: the "he" references to Cromwell in Wolf Hall bordered on confusing, but are presented in a simpler, more accessible way in Bring Up the Bodies (often in the form of "he, Cromwell"). It's a cleaner read that seems determined to prevent Bring Up the Bodies from being mislabeled as "dense" (as its predecessor was so often unfairly dubbed).

So yes. Bring Up the Bodies is a worthy successor to Wolf Hall and a wonderful book in its own right. Now I just need to remember that when the third book in Mantel's trilogy comes out, I should not doubt her ability to complete Cromwell's story in the best possible way. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spoiler alert expiration date

I recently saw that a few months back, Unshelved had a Friday comic which raised a rather interesting and relevant question. While reviewing a graphic novel version of The Odyssey, one of the characters calls out "spoiler alert". The response is amusing but also thought-provoking: "This story is thousands of years old. The statute of limitations for spoilers has expired."

It's a very interesting question... at what point (if any) does a story's main plot become part of the public domain? When does it become legitimate to tell the whole story, end included?
Original comic here

I have to wonder about the classics. Who doesn't know the end to Hamlet? Or Pride and Prejudice? There are modern books as well: are there very many people who haven't had aspects of Harry Potter spoiled for them? Many of the most popular stories inevitably get told and retold so often that it becomes almost impossible to avoid having it "spoiled". At the end of the day, though, we do try to avoid spoiling books. We keep our blurbs to a relative minimum (though we really need to instate the 10% rule) and we typically keep our reviews spoiler-free, or at least include a spoiler alert to ward off readers who might not want to know what happens.

There's a level, though, when the surprises in the story cease to be the driving force of the book. It's a bit like watching the movie after reading the book (or the opposite) - you already know the story, but you're experiencing it for the nuances and the way it's told. The plot - the actual occurrences - aren't the only reason for enjoying the story. By this point, you're expected to know what happens. You're reading the book (or watching the movie) for everything else - the writing, the character building, the clever one-liners, the complexity... whatever it may be.

I don't know at what point we hit that expiration date but I think it does exist in some form. It's not necessarily correlated to the age of the story, but perhaps to the popularity and the ubiquity. I'd never consider telling someone the development and ending of All Quiet on the Western Front, but no one really hides Lord of the Rings' ending - in fact, you're almost expected to know what happens (vaguely, at least). The more people discuss a good story, the more likely others are to be exposed and that exposure doesn't mean that you'll necessarily enjoy the story any less. Look at retellings, look at the classics.

I think there is a spoiler alert expiration date. For most books, at least (there are obviously a few books that hinge on certain surprises or lose some of their power once you know the end... All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind again). It changes from book to book and it isn't set in stone, but I believe it's there. What do you guys think?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Out of your Plane you go!

Image from Wikipedia
Disclosure: I tried to read Flatland a while back but somehow stalled, despite quite liking it. I never really forgot about it but earlier this week I started reading it from the beginning and... whew. What a hilarious, interesting, confusing and bizarre little book. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself constantly highlighting paragraphs and taking notes (on Artemis, my Sony Reader). In part thanks to that extensive notetaking and the very nature of the book, this might be an almost-review scale ramble.  

***Profanity warning
***Also, some readers may consider the following (fake) summary of the book as a spoiler, so be warned.

To merely describe Flatland as a math book is only doing it a service. If someone had told me that Flatland had so much philosophy and satire, I'd have probably said, "Uhh, no thanks." But instead, I was pretty much given the following description of Flatland by someone who read the book for math class as a teen:
There's like, this line or something, and he's taken to the second dimension. At first he's like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY" but then he realizes it's true, so he goes to tell his friends, "Hey, there's a second dimension!" and all the first dimension people are like "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY". Then he tells the second dimension people, "Hey maybe there's a third dimension too!" and all the second dimension people are like, "WHATTHEFUCKNOWAY."
To say the least, this description had me sold. Then again, I won't pretend I wasn't disappointed by the lack of profanity (though "Fool! Madman! Irregular!" is pretty splendid in itself). But it turns out Flatland is a lot more than just a book about geometry (and the plot doesn't quite follow the above description, but that's irrelevant for all intents and purposes). It's a book bursting more with ideas, some mind-bending concepts, and the very concept of the mind-bending.

One of the first things I noticed was the notion of the "Irregular", essentially a significantly deformed perversion of the Flatland mentality. In a world where everyone is perfectly angular, where the number of sides you have indicate your social class, anyone "irregular" is:
from his birth scouted by his own parents, derided by his brothers and sisters, neglected by the domestics, scorned and suspected by society, and excluded from all posts of responsibility, trust and useful activity. His every movement is jealously watched by the police till he comes of age and presents himself for inspect; the he is either destroyed, if he is found to exceed the fixed margin of deviation, or else immured in a Government Office as a clerk of the seventh class[...]
This subclass intrigued me, particularly after it became obvious that Flatland has a strict and rigid hierarchy. Take, for instance, the position of women in Flatland. It's... not particularly good. Because women are straight lines, they are also sharp (and dangerous) points. Therefore, laws like this exist in Flatland:
Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus's Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed.
And then, sentiments like these exists:
[S]ince women are deficient in Reason but abundant in Emotion, they ought no longer to be considered as rational, nor receive any mental education. [...] My fear is that, with the best intentions, this policy has been carried so far as to react injuriously on the Male Sex.
So the problem isn't that women are no longer educated at all, but rather that it might harm men. At the end of the chapter, our narrator proposes reinstating education for women. But the reasoning is so that it may benefit men. So not so noble after all...

It's only in the second part of the book that the math takes over. In a lot of senses, it reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time, probably because it goes into trippy dimensional explanations. It made my head hurt, but it also made me think. Which is kind of the point. The end of the book is frustrating, in that I was frustrated (like our narrator) that the citizens of Flatland did not realize the truth about the dimensions. It's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment.

But this is only ever internal disappointment. Setting aside the questionable morals of the Flatland world, Flatland as a book is excellent. It's cool quasi sci-fi (or particularly mathematical fantasy), it's a fascinating social satire (at least, I hope it's satire... sometimes it's so seriously done it's hard to know...), and is full of interesting philosophical questions. It's an easy enough book to read (being very short and very plainly written), but it's bursting with complex ideas that are just as relevant and confusing today as they may have been in the 1880s.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Familiar unknowns

This photo doesn't show just how large the book really is
As I neared the end of the very long The Invisible Bridge (or perhaps what should have been the end), I found myself struck by a certain reference found within its pages. One I couldn't remember seeing in fiction before.

On page 423, one of the characters first mentions the Struma tragedy and thus truly catapulting the book to my attention. The scene woke me up. Julie Orringer, in the midst of her Hungarian Holocaust novel slips in a piece of family history and not just by name. Recognizing that her readers will likely not know the name, she further explains the situation to the characters, tying it into their escape rhetoric. It's an interesting and effective method, in sync with much of the what the book aims to prove.

First Struma reference and explanation
Orringer's use of a virtually unknown Holocaust tragedy that escapes the bounds of the typical Holocaust cliché is what makes this a book worth even considering. Even beyond the Struma incident, Orringer's main characters face tragedies of a different sort than Auschwitz and they attempt escapes that don't involve desperate chases and runs through the woods. This is a Hungarian Holocaust novel and one of the only ones I've ever read.

Taking a familiar setting (the years leading up to the Holocaust and through to the end of the European war) and making it new is not an easy task. Orringer may not have written the next classic novel, but it's a pretty good take nonetheless (if way, way too inflated). The sparks of originality that slip into the narrative give the book a few fresh moments even as the story progresses in a familiar and predictable manner. That Orringer introduced me to a new story that I already knew... it's chilling and yet somewhat wonderful. I want authors to tell me different stories. I want authors to educate me. That readers of The Invisible Bridge now know about the Struma gives me some peace. Julie Orringer, I tip my hat.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Armenian genocide, out of context

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh has been sitting on my bookshelves for six years. I finally started reading it last week. Now, after devouring the first of three sections (er... books), I'm going to set the book aside for a short time. It should be noted that this book is brilliant so far.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is one of those rare books that makes me want to highlight passages, quote them, analyze them and dissect them to their tiniest commas and dashes. It's a dense book, no doubt, heavy with expectation and meaning. It's also only the second book I've ever read (or encountered) about the Armenian genocide, the first having been a kids book from seven years ago (an Amazon recommendation thus brought The Forty Days of Musa Dagh to my attention).

Reading about the Armenian genocide in today's world is a fairly difficult task. Like Peter Sourian, writer of the introduction in my edition of the book, I repeatedly find myself making connections to the Holocaust. The more famous one, that is. The one that is heavily represented in literature. It's actually rather hard not to make such connections. Allow me the indulgence of quoting some lengthy passages.
For many people it is depressing even to move house. A lost fragment of life always remains. To move to another town, settle in a foreign country is for everyone a major decision. But, to be suddenly driven forth, within twenty-four house, from one's home, one's work, the reward of years of steady industry. To become the helpless prey of hate. To be sent defenceless out on to Asiatic highroads, with several thousand miles of dust, stones and morass before one. To know that one will never again find a decently human habitation, never again sit down to a proper table. Yet all this is nothing. To be more shackled than any convict. To be counted as outside the law, a vagabond, whom anyone has the right to kill unpunished. To be confined within a crawling herd of sick people, a moving concentration camp, in which no one is so much as allowed to ease his body without permission. - p. 93-94
According to Wikipedia, Franz Werfel's novel has always been interpreted as referencing Jews and anti-Semitism. Werfel himself faced much anti-Semitic behavior in his life and twice had to flee the Nazis - the first time from Austria and later from France. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was written in 1933, "prefiguring the atrocities of World War II" (as the back of the book refers to it). It's an eerily accurate and apt description.
Germany, luckily, has few or no, internal enemies. But let's suppose that, in other circumstances, she found herself with traitors in her midst - Alsace-Lorrainers, shall we say, or Poles, or Social Democrats, or Jews - and in far greater numbers than at present. Would you, Herr Lepsius, not endorse any and every means of freeing your country, which is fighting for its life against a whole world of enemies without, from those within?... Would you consider it so cruel if, for the sake of victory, all dangerous elements in the population were simply to be herded together and sent packing into distant, uninhabited territory? - p. 135-136
This second quote is taken from a conversation between the German priest Dr. Lepsius and the Turkish leader Enver Pasha. The conversation is full of comments that make the noble Lepsius (as well as the reader) want to rip his hair out. 
I agree that among Armenians one finds an alarming proportion of intelligence. Are you really so much in favor of that kind of intelligence, Herr Lepsius? I'm not. We Turks may not be very intelligent in that way, but we're a great and heroic people, called to establish and govern a world empire. Therefore we intend to surmount all obstacles. - p. 138-139
There's also a fair amount of anti-Semitism in the conversation (as is evidenced above). At one point, Enver Pasha says of the American ambassador (who has eye-witnessed atrocities): "Mr. Morgenthau [...] is a Jew. And Jews are always fanatically on the side of minorities." - p. 134

But what's remarkable is the way the similarities are drawn by the reader, not by Werfel himself. Werfel, at the time of writing The Forty Days of Musa Dagh could not have imagined what horrors Jews would face in Europe only a few years later. Some parallels are apparent - the fact is that by the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rampant in Austria. Werfel inserts the same fears, paranoias, stereotypes and false beliefs in as the views of the Turks against Armenians. The Turks are seen as jealous of the wealth and power of some Armenians. Of their positions in fields like medicine and accounting.

Then the connections that I draw: the same absolute fear of a people deemed to be outsiders. The same desire to entirely destroy a race that is viewed as a "traitor", working from within to bring down an empire (and even more specifically, the new regime that represents a far more ancient empire). The methodological manner of completely destroying a group of people. True annihilation. Genocide.

I'm certain I will have more to say after I read the second two "books" that comprise of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. So far, it's been fascinating. Not only does it tell of a wonderful (also difficult) story (resistance is always interesting), it has taught me a lot and given me much to think about. I'll take some time to mull it over before diving back in, but I'm certainly looking forward to completing this book. I'm glad I'm finally giving it a chance.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Wolf Hall

My teaser post last week did not accurately encompass my feelings towards Wolf Hall. This isn't a book that just draws a reader in through its story, it's a book that dragged me into its depths because of its intense wit. Every page of Wolf Hall has some clever line, either spoken by the book's many sharp characters (Cromwell, you bastard) or even its less witty characters. Lines that fall into the context of history made me laugh out loud numerous times throughout the book.

One advantage Wolf Hall has over many other historical fiction texts (other than the excellent writing of Hilary Mantel, which is certainly going to lead me to read more of her books, though I need to remember to keep my expectations reasonably low...) is that Mantel takes a character previously shown in negative light (think A Man for All Seasons) and makes the reader absolutely, completely and totally fall into step (or love - whatever) with him. By the end of the book, I wanted nothing more than for Cromwell to manage my own affairs and then clap him on the back and say, "Well, if you're pretty much best friend/truster advisor to the king... I'm sure you can be best friends with me!"

It's not just Cromwell, though. It's the human way Mantel portrays everyone - the positive and negative sides of Henry VIII, Wolsey, Catherine, Anne and many other historical figures I've only ever encountered very vaguely. This isn't a historical text, to be certain, but it's not the typical historical fiction novel either (romance filled and, with no offence to good historical fiction, lame). It's refreshing.

The main criticism I'd encountered of Wolf Hall before reading it (and the one that made me hesitant to approach it) was the label "dense". While reading Wolf Hall, I understood where readers might get that impression, even if I did not. The book is long, certainly, and packed, but "dense" in my mind means heavily packed to the point that it does not flow well. Wolf Hall flowed. It positively bounced. Whether in the intensely entertaining scenes of historical relevance, or the simply brilliant dialogue, I wanted nothing more than to continue reading the book. And also finish it.

It's true that it's been a long, long time since I've read a good historical fiction book. Or a good classic. Wolf Hall appealed to me on both those fronts, in the weirdest of ways. It's a book that feels modernly old-fashioned, historically contemporary, and all-over well-crafted. It's a book that's truly "extraordinary" - not quite like anything I've ever read and most highly recommended.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holocaust Memorial Day

It's been 65 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and in certain communities around the world. Of the various memorial days for Holocaust victims, this is probably the best known besides the "official" International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which typically passes with little fanfare.

I've already written much about Primo Levi's well-known works, about Holocaust memoirs, and other topics, but there is much to be said about the wide and varied "Holocaust lit" genre. And I do mean "lit" - literature in the sense of novels and stories as opposed to memoirs or personal accounts.

World War II is one of the most common story settings. The Holocaust similarly so. These are books across the board when it comes to style, intended audience and genre: popular fiction, romance, teen, heavier "literary" fiction... even sci-fi (though this is probably the rarest of the lot). All of these books take the same larger setting, so you'd think all would also sound alike and lack originality (more so than most literature, that is).

What warrants our attention? As I once mentioned in passing, there are too many poorly written Holocaust and World War II books out there that make it big and are even used for teaching. For many years, I avoided "the Holocaust novel" like I might a romance novel or a thriller simply because I was, for lack of a better phrase, sick of it. The last couple of years, I've tentatively begun to return to the field. I've realized that most of the books are still bad (because most books are just bad), but there are a couple of gems. And then the question: do these books even count?

What I mean is this. A book like "The Family Moskat" doesn't seem like a Holocaust book at all. It takes place between the world wars, just ending as tanks roll into Warsaw (spoiler alert?). Even though it seems far from the war, it actually embodies it throughout the work in the subtle references, the exploration of anti-Semitism among Poles and a display of the Polish-Jewish dynamic. Or what of "Brodeck", which neglects to title the fairly obvious war and focuses on the aftermath? Though never named, the Holocaust (imagined or not) is clearly felt throughout the novel.

Definitions aside, all of these books remind us of a world that should not be forgotten. Whether these books are based on real lives or are reality mixed with pure fiction, each story (or even fragment, thread or mention) keeps us one step further from forgetting the horrors that occurred far too recently.