Defying Hitler is an unusual memoir, written by a man who was just 7 at the start of WWI and whose main concern that late summer was that the horses he loved in the place where his family was on vacation were taken away. The book starts with WWI and ends before he left Germany, ultimately for England, where he was able to marry his Jewish wife, something that was illegal in Germany, and welcome his son into the world, the very son who published this memoir that his father had abandoned — after some very uncomfortable months as what we would not call an undocumented immigrant.
The memoir describes the experience of a middle-class family in the midst of extraordinary events. Hyperinflation means that the father’s salary is immediately spent not just on rent and a bus pass but also the purchase of groceries for the entire month. The Reichstag may be dissolved but his Jewish colleague keeps officiating as a judge (not for long, as SAs soon march into the law library and ask everyone, point-blank, whether they are “Aryan”. Some newspapers, titles unchanged, become Nazi organs (the others disappear). And our hero is sent to a military camp along with other law students, which unsettles him most when he actually enjoys some of the activities there.
There are some attempts at explaining and taking a higher perspective, fortunately few of them as the direct experience is what gives the book its power. We can all be very glad that the lost manuscript was found and published.
Feeling chipper and optimistic, and wanting to feel more depressed? Pick up The Lighthouse, a tale of repeated betrayal and violence, with interludes into regrets and memories of loss. The hero, a recently divorced Asperger’s nerd type, undertakes a walking vacation during which he reminisces about his mother’s abandoning him, his wife cheating on him, and his best friend’s betraying him. Each night is another hotel with completely indifferent or outright terrible service, to the terrible ending.
Have a dreadful day.
Munich Airport stars the narrator and his elderly father, stuck in the fogged-in Munich airport as they await a flight back home, which will carry them and the coffin of their sister and daughter who died of starvation, after years of living far from home and removed from her family. As the hours tick by, the story of their sad trip to Germany unfolds, as do many other memories, while the father becomes increasingly weak and ill, and the son is not far behind. The author manages to capture perfectly the bizarre atmosphere of airports in general, and airports during long flight delays in particular: how people can be both patient and fed up and how tired minds bizarrely obsess over long-ago adventures. That being said, stream of consciousness stories are hard to sustain over hundreds of pages, and this one flagged, at times.
Having loved The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, I read Broken Glass Park with high expectations, and I was mostly satisfied — but also curious to see how the two heroines, one a manipulative grandmother (in the former), the other a teenager with success and revenge on her mind (in the latter) exhibit many of the same traits of implacable drive, not hesitating to use other people to accomplish their needs. Here the heroine saves herself and her younger siblings from ruin after her stepfather brutally murders her mother. I thought that the first half of the novel was breathtaking in how well it captured the smart, desperate, willful teenager, then I felt it petered out a bit, all the way to a happy but not quite likely ending.
I have this theory that translated novels must be decent, otherwise why bother translating them in the first place. And this theory has, I’m sorry to say, many exceptions including Seven Years, a depressing novel of a man who married for reasons that never quite become clear either in his head or the novel and also has a mistress who is not that bright, not that beautiful, and terribly repressed to boot. What does he see in her? Mute devotion is the only possibility, and one wonders how that could be satisfying… So Mr. self-centered swans about his failing architecture firm (run with his wife, perhaps that explains the need to escape?), his supposedly beloved daughter (how can he put her in the middle of the mess?) and his doormat mistress — only to be utterly surprised when the whole setup blows up in his face.
It would be nice to become attached to one character, any character, but the hero is just too much of a cad, the mistress almost non-existent, the wife all-business, and the daughter too little. Maybe I should revise my theory about translated novels.
Two history books in the same week! It must be a record for me. I quite enjoyed this one, In the Garden of Beasts, whose title is a play on the Berlin’s Tiergarten area, where the new US ambassador to Germany moves in 1933 as the Nazi regime is asserting itself through purges and tighter and tighter control of the population.
The most interesting part of the book for me is the figure of ambassador Dodd, a former history professor, idealistic and completely outside the tight-knit club of the foreign service, whose overall accurate observations of the regime and its excesses can never be accepted or acted upon by superiors who just don’t perceive him as one of them. He dares to walk to appointments in his morning coat (a terrible scandal, don’t you know?). He thinks that the US government should let up on debt repayment and concentrate instead on what we would today call human rights abuses. He speaks freely about his beliefs. He is doomed.
His misguided daughter, Martha, is another interesting character. First, she loves Germany, Nazis and all, overlooking all hints and even evidence of abuses. Then she loves the USSR, without ever suspecting that her lover could be (and is!) with the secret police. When she meets Hitler, her most pressing concern is how to dress. What a twit.
There were aspects of the book I did like so much: the annoyingly breathless style (let’s face it, we already know what happened to the SAs), the overdone foreshadowing (Martha and others may be idiots when they fail to see the darkness of the Nazis’ intentions, but it’s so easy for us to figure it out after the fact), and the occasional overflow of details (we know the author was diligent in his research, but we really do not need the not-so-funny quote from the ambassador’s gastroenterologist). And I wish the book would end quickly once the ambassador leaves Germany.