July 10, 2010

Book 40: Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin
Hans Fallada

It's understandable enough that much of the literature surrounding the Second World War centers on resistance to the existing regimes, and that most of these works devote their time to the small success of well-organized movements, partisan fighters, or good people helping to hide Jews or other undesirables from their persecutors. In Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada draws attention to less successful efforts at resistance and paints a picture of wartime Germany in many more shades of gray than the stark black and white preferred by many of the era's chroniclers. Though the thrust of the main plot is occasionally lost as the narrative gets sidetracked, the novel offers a reasonably comprehensive view of the lives of a few normal and ordinary Germans who participated in small acts of resistance to the mighty Reich. Fallada's willingness to expose the near futility of his heroes' actions does not ultimately betray his underlying faith in human decency, but instead contributes to the book's thorough realism. Readers get the sense that Alone in Berlin reflects, as the book's afterword puts it, "the banality of good."

The range of characters explored in the book grounds Fallada's examination of Berlin in wartime, contributing to the book's sense of comprehensiveness despite the centrality of one couple's story. Fallada is also willing to look at the past from different points of view, and while the moral timbre of the book is never in doubt, significant attention is given to less savory Party and Gestapo members as well. Shifting tenses can be a bit distracting, but a preference for the present tense lends the story a sense of urgency and contributes significantly to its superb sense of setting. Though the plot lags at times throughout the middle of the book, an extremely well-executed (and lengthy) denouement transforms the book from a good novel into a brilliant one. It is here that Fallada unleashes a biting satirical tone, as well as displaying a deep sense of empathy and compassion. A well-placed interlude provides a break from the heaviest moments and the book's final sections most fully explore its central themes, presenting a thoughtful and relevant commentary on the efficacy of even the smallest acts of human decency. Alone in Berlin has small slips, but recovers in fine fashion to present a realistic and thorough view of Berlin during the Second World War as well as a moving commentary on human action, inaction, and, above all, decency in the face of overwhelming evil and overwhelming odds.

Grade: A

July 6, 2010

Book 39: The Ball Is Round

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football
David Goldblatt

This ambitious book attempts to provide a complete and nearly universal history of soccer, an appropriate book to turn to during the World Cup. Goldblatt begins with the origin of kicking games throughout the world and traces the development of association football from its first codifications in 19th-century Britain to the spectacle and glamour of today's most popular Premiership sides. More importantly, Goldblatt not only acknowledges but also draws significant attention to the development of the game in various countries and regions, although coverage outside of Europe, Latin America, and Africa is slim to virtually nonexistent. Goldblatt does, however, seek to put soccer in a wider historical context, and indeed this sport-specific history could successfully substitute for a more comprehensive history of the world (or at least Europe, South America, and post-World War II Africa). It is in establishing and exploring the connections between soccer cultures and the greater arcs of history that the book shows its greatest strength, as the body of the work supports the author's initial thesis that separating the world's game from the world's history would ultimately prove a fruitless pursuit.

Despite clocking in at a hefty 900 pages, it is clear that The Ball Is Round could easily suit both devoted history buffs and more reluctant soccer fans. The writing is clear and avoids excessive political or literary rhetoric, allowing enough small moments of humor to keep things interesting but (apart from an extremely excessive use of the word "ludicrous") rarely succumbing to or exulting in its own cleverness. The obvious exception to this notable- and welcome- restraint is in the well-intentioned asides that chronicle important matches in the game's history. It is here that Goldblatt chooses to (attempt to) flex his literary muscles, and often they prove almost hilariously ill-constructed. Full of quite unnecessary flourishes, these match reports often fail to illuminate both the particulars of the match in question and its wider importance; thankfully, the supporting text is usually sufficient to fill in the gaps. Apart from these missteps, however, the book is remarkably readable and accessible both to longtime fanatics and newly minted fans. Its heft ensures that it is not for the faint of heart- nor is it a casual introduction- but the book is almost pathologically thorough in chronicling important figures and developments in world soccer. An impressive achievement that straddles the line between academic information and pop culture history, The Ball Is Round should prove satisfactory for those fans who want to dive headfirst and deeply into the history of the world, as experienced through soccer.

Grade: A