April 22, 2007

Book 28: Still Alive

Still Alive
Ruth Kluger

I have read a lot of Shoah literature, and yet there is something different about each personal account of the disaster. This memoir/philosophical treatise delves deep within the human soul to try not to excuse history or even to explain it, but to cast it in an interesting and inherently more honest light. It is evident that Kluger is writing for herself just as much as she is writing for the readers, and this makes the book self-reflective rather than self-pitying. Kluger is searching for truth within and from her awful experiences, not for pity or disdain. The narrative speaks of greater things than just the Shoah, with a sincere urging not to forget and not to get bogged down in the details of the many horror stories. Kluger wants to preserve our shock, and her constant refusal to go into excess gruesome detail is poignant. Kluger is not hiding from the past but is, rather, illuminating it.

The book is somewhat dense and doesn't read as a straightforward chronological narrative, though it follows the general path of Kluger's early life. The events are speckled with more current reflections that manage not to distract the reader. The only thing about the book that does get distracting are the unfortunate lapses in tense- the narrative switches between present and past tense without much sense or reason. This, however, can be overlooked in light of what is being narrated. Kluger is a truly gifted writer who speaks to the reader and to herself throughout her writing without seeming pretentious at all. Kluger feels strongly about Germans; there is no doubt of that, but neither is she eager to condemn them outright. Her words are at once severe and forgiving, weaving a pattern of introspection that transcends memoir and asks the big questions. This memoir is not just another stone in the great repository of Shoah remembrance. Kluger breaks free of stereotypes, addresses them, and comes out ahead of the norm with an interesting, poignant, and truly unique look at the horror years of Europe.

In my distracted state, I cannot do adequate justice to this masterpiece of reflection. Kluger's text transcends the boundaries of its subject matter and its time and gets at the heart of reflection and historical memory. She is startlingly honest and frank- she makes no apologies or excuses for her actions and is as unforgiving to herself as she is to her mother. The poetry within the pages of prose, though Kluger's own, is offered without pretense and illuminates the text without becoming self-congratulating. Kluger is, if nothing else, brutally honest and strives to make her narrative different. Her book succeeds on every level, and is a must-read for those interested in this period of European history.

Grade: A

April 21, 2007

Book 27: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Patrick Süskind

Lest you think I swallowed two books in a day, I should elaborate and explain that I have been reading this book since the end of Spring Break, only now finding time adequate to finish. The school year is so limiting to personal reading, but this book proved particularly apt for the touch-and-go reading I was forced to impose on it. The concept is startlingly fresh and unique: Perfume is the story of a man born with an uncanny sense of smell and his degeneration into a madman. The subtitle is somewhat misleading but makes more sense upon reflection, but it is only at the end of the book that the murderous nature of Grenouille (the perpetator) is truly revealed.

The prose itself is magnificent. Süskind uses the olfactory sense as a playground to reveal the mysteries of scent that we often take for granted. Though the book suffers from overuse of the adjective "cheesy" to describe the scent of the Parisian masses (overuse somewhat mitigated by the fact that Süskind is German and is, of course, referring to the notoriously-ill-smelling French), the descriptions of scents are remarkably spot-on, causing the reader to pause and consider the world in a different way. Descriptions of scents appear time and again and present the accuracy of an author who has given careful thought to his choice of words.

While the vocabulary of the book and its metaphors are incredibly well-done, the book starts to fall apart as the plot meanders and gets confused in the midst of brilliant descriptive power. The examinations of Grenouille's soul, told through a limited third-person point of view, are intriguing and give the reader a fleshed-out idea of the madman that doesn't quite come across through his actions alone. Perhaps it was my disjointed reading that created this gap between action and thought, but it took me quite a while to fully grasp Grenouille. An interesting character he is indeed, but he could use a little more fleshing out, especially considering the slips of narrative voice. Were the narrative voice consistently tied to Grenouille, thought would be much more important than action. The narrator, however, uncomfortably and arbitrarily switches between the view of Grenouille and those he comes into contact with. These diversions jar the reader out of the fictional world and induce some slight discomfort with the text.

The story of Perfume is a good one and one worth telling with the wonderful prose that is afforded it in the book. The story, however, strays beyond the mere power of its words and becomes muddy in the middle, to solidify in time to redeem the ending but leaving a bit more to be desired. Süskind opens the door to a new world of sensation through the power of the nose, but doesn't quite walk through to glory. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my time with this book and would recommend it to someone looking for something a little different. There is great insight and wisdom between the (sometimes) blurred plot lines.

Grade: B

Book 26: A Concise History of the Third Reich

A Concise History of the Third Reich
Wolfgang Benz

It is refreshing to read a history of Nazism that isn't deathly intent on provoking hatred, one that is reasonable and concerns itself more with facts than with condemnation. Benz, being German, provides an interesting point of view with this narrative of the Nazi years, and while he is particularly hard on his countrymen in the last pages of the book, his condemnation seems justified. By confining this subjectivity to the last portion of the book, Benz shows marked restraint and a keen eye for what is truly important when grappling with this most uncomfortable portion of German history.

The prose itself is easy to follow, but basically unremarkable. There are a few grammatical errors of the sort that plague translation (this being from German, I imagine that the translation and not the original text is at fault for the many misplaced commas). These slight missteps, however, do not seriously hinder the reader and are really just a personal pet peeve. Because the book comes in under 300 pages (which is shocking considering its comprehensive scope), it is mostly dry. This approach, however, is useful considering the rampant trend of overly sentimentalizing the events in Germany surrounding the Nazis. There is some value to personalizing the tragedies, but Benz pays adequate attention to intricacies of personal experience and strikes a good, if weighted, balance between statistics and stories. Particularly interesting are the mini-biographies of high-ranking Nazi personnel scattered throughout the book. These add a degree of depth to the otherwise flattened text and help the reader ask important questions about culpability.

This book would be a wonderful asset for those interesting in gaining an overall picture of Nazi Germany. A careful reading will expose aspects of the home front, Hitler's personal circle, and the war that combine to provide a good picture of Germany in the period. Benz's text may not be the most fluent of history writing, but the mere fact that the book is readable works in his favor, especially given the proclivity for historical writers to, well, suck. A good introduction to the Third Reich, this book serves its purpose with pure adequacy.

Grade: B+

April 11, 2007

Book 25: A Month in the Country

A Month in the Country
J.L. Carr

This bite-sized novel is perfect for a fading August afternoon, as though the weather so beautifully evoked in the novel could somehow transcend its pages and enter the world around us. Though it is a freezing April night, Carr's delicate prose placed me in the thick of summer, from which I only occasionally emerged to shiver. Though the book is small both in scope and size, its words are carefully chosen and wring more emotion out of the reader than many gargantuan novels. The characters are remarkably well-formed and intimately familiar, transcending typical "small-town" roles of necessity and truly coming alive as fully fleshed-out and realistic. Though the story takes place in rural England, the setting never feels forced or exceedingly innocent; rather, it rings true despite the book's own separation from its subject matter.

Carr is able to write a philosophical tract that rarely becomes campy or blindingly didactic, doing so in the guise of a war veteran looking back across the decades himself. Carr has consistently chosen the most fitting means to reach his ends, and at every turn where a less talented writer would dip into complacence and easy metaphor, Carr excells and rises above the mundane to create the extraordinary. By fusing traditional medieval visual art with his own familiar medium of words and phrases, Carr paints a complete picture of a man painting his own picture atop another. Just as there are layers of grime that must be removed to reveal the novel's central mural, there is a continual probing of Tom Birkin's persona. As the narrator and the reader dive deeper and deeper into the world of his lost mythical summer, Carr peels back layers of himself and of his readers to reveal life lessons that seem somehow very personal and true to experience.

This novel was potential disaster around many turns. It would have been easy to resort to pretentious third-person narration and preach at the reader. After all, the setting is a small parish church. What Carr has done, however, is created a person. Birkin is not a character but a real, tangible figure with whom the reader learns to identify and whom the reader grows to understand in his own terms. We are alongside Birkin in his carefully narrated journey of rememberance and renewal, and it is exactly where we should be. This book is beautiful and moving, leaving me wanting more but somehow exquisitely perfect in its length. When a long summer day comes calling and you find yourself feeling existential, spend a few weeks in the country with Tom Birkin and discover a slice of life.

Grade: A

April 5, 2007

Book 24: The Futurological Congress

The Futurological Congress
Stanislaw Lem

This book may be slim but boy, does it pack a punch. Lem consistently employs a one-two style that simply doesn't relent, both to his credit and to my occasional dismay. The book, however, comes through in the end with its surprisingly fresh premise and its eerily accurate satirical jabs, making it an enjoyable quick read for a boring afternoon. The novel has many salient themes, but the most interesting is its attention to drugs and the false sense of security and/or reality they can provide. Through Ijon Tichy and his contact with a political uprising, Lem is able to construct a shifting reality that leaves readers just as disoriented as Tichy. At first, this is incredibly effective, but a couple of jumps later the reader is simply confused for no real purpose. Once Lem calms down and sets his plot firmly in the future, further jumps make more sense and actually add to the narrative.

Tichy as a character isn't particularly riveting, but the book is more of a description than a plot, reminding me a bit of More's Utopia. The lack of a truly cohesive plot line is surprisingly only noticed occasionally, after a great lag of action. These gaps, however, illustrate the main fault of the novel- its intensity. Lem hammers away at society constantly as a narrator and leaves little for his readers to actually infer. His satire is spot-on and eerily foreshadows developments we are just seeing after the turn of the century, but it is a little too blatant to be truly masterful. Lem has good ideas but could better utilize subtlety and more traditional literary means to make his points even more effective.

Despite the fact that the symbolism is obvious, the book excells at criticizing our current fascination with mind-altering drugs. The book takes a while to digest, just like the books in its own future world, but can easily provoke intense thought and discussion regarding reality and how we access it. This book would prove an exceptionally apt choice for a philosophy-minded book club or group of friends. When its powerful criticism is taken at its face value, it forces the reader to seriously consider our usage of feel-good drugs, our reliance on science, and even the way we interact with the government and what we expect of it. Funny and brilliant throughout, the book ultimately delivers.

Grade: B+

April 2, 2007

Book 23: Regeneration

Pat Barker

In a class about the literature of World War I, you'd expect the literature to naturally run out of interesting topics after a while. A war novel is a war novel is a war novel, right? Not so, my friend, and perhaps this is particularly true with literature written well after the experience itself. We would expect this to be a hurdle for Barker (and indeed, any writer of removed historical fiction), but she instead creates a compelling narrative both particular to its time and circumstances and relevant to the postwar experiences of soldiers returning from Iraq today. Barker may suffer from a bit of a lack of focus on her characters, but when they come through they really shine, to say nothing of the consistently glistening prose and accurate, compelling descriptions of profoundly affected veterans.

The narrative centers on a historical doctor and a selection of his mental patients, all taking place in England while the war is still going on. The doctor is charged with restoring his patients to battle duty as best he can, and the novel thus raises important questions about battle readiness and, of course, what makes men go crazy in the first place. The descriptions of the soldiers seem chillingly accurate, as they wake up from nightmares on a nightly basis and have periodic blackouts. One insists that his spine has been broken even though multiple doctors have told him that his spine has been fine all along- he paralyzes himself by sheer subconscious will. While Barker may seem to be callous by implying that the soldiers themselves have caused some of their problems, we return to sympathy through Doctor Rivers's endless devotion to the care of his patients. He is always delicate and, by the end of the novel, allows himself to be changed and moved by them. The book is as much a work of portraiture as it is a war story, and Barker is definitely successful.

This success is somewhat hampered by the book's wide focus, however. We get elaborate sketches of numerous characters, but some of the implications of their personalities are a little too hidden. I was often surprised when Barker tacitly referred to a detail that I had somehow missed, despite its apparent importance. Though Siegfried Sassoon is trumpeted as a main character both by author and by blurb, the reader becomes much more familiar with the patient Prior and the ex-patient Burns. Sassoon remains aloof and fairly elitist, which is perhaps an aspect of his character but still creates some distance that invites confusion when Rivers pays homage at the end of the text. I could see the transformation in Rivers, but I could not see how Sassoon had brought it about. I think that Barker's text would be greatly enhanced by a bit more attention to simply showing and allowing the characters to affect each other they way they naturally do rather than forcing false-seeming conclusions.

All told, however, this is a profoundly moving book. The characterization may be a bit muddy, but those who do come through are astonishingly sharp. Barker has managed to write a compelling and gritty war book without presenting a single battle scene outside of a few secondhand glimpses into soldiers' memories. Credibility is in no way an issue, and had the book not informed me that it was written in 1992, I would credit it to a World War I nurse (the last of whom just died, incidentally). Barker has put together a moving testament to the forgotten victims of World War I and indeed all wars- the mentally affected who are not cowards but who battle demons worse than any tactile enemy.

Grade: A-