Posts tagged ‘history’

February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Witness House by Christiane Kohl

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THE WITNESS HOUSE
by Christiane Kohl

Other Press
(October 2010, $14.95, 272 pages)

What would happen if Hitler’s right hand men shacked up under the same roof as Holocaust victims? It’s actually a true story and is told in The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl.

The Witness House takes place during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich. Accommodated in Novalisstrasse, a boarding house on the outskirts of Nuremberg, are witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence of the Nazi regime’s war crime trial. Mediating opposing viewpoints in Novalisstrasse is Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, a local appointed by American liberation troops. At the Countess’s every beck and call is Elise Krülle, Novalisstrasse’s chambermaid and waitress.

It’s interesting to see the level of intellect Nazi devotees have in this story. For example, Rudolf Diels, the first to head the Gestapo, claims he was never a Hitler supporter. He perpetuates the guise by acting like a ladies man as he attempts to charm the Countess by kissing her hand, among other flirtatious moves, but Kálnoky knows that Diels is a dangerous man and is on “room arrest” for a reason.

Erwin Lahousen also projects an air of mystery. He was on the front line during the war, often close to Hitler, but he claims he was a member of the Resistance and that he came inches from murdering the head of the Nazi party.

The Witness House offers lively scenes begging for analysis. For instance, Countess Kálnoky acts as a middleman between Lahousen and Hoffman, Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend. Lahousen is in need of soap and razors, scarce items in post-war Germany, which Hoffman has stashed away. The Countess cons these items into her possession and then passes them on to Lahousen. You can only ask, when would this ever happen in the outside world?

Kohl’s research into wartime Germany and the Nuremberg trials offers moments of serious awakening. Gerhard Krülle, the chambermaid’s teenage son, grew up as a hypnotised Hitler youth. He tells of how, under the regime, he believed in the Fuhrer but was rudely awakened when National Socialism fell and his mentor was exposed as a war criminal. The propaganda young Germans faced is a viewpoint rarely exposed and it is worth reflecting upon.

Concentration camp life is also revealed. Stories of SS brothels run by Nazi soldiers sicken the reader and shed light on a part of the war we try not to think about. The most gruesome scene comes by way of French prisoner Maurice Lampe. He witnessed political prisoners “forced to keep carrying heavy blocks of stone up [. . .] steps. One after another, the men had collapsed, and soon the stairway was covered with blood and corpses.”

Aside from telltale violence, it is the absurd which gives you nightmares. Stories of “daily roll calls, often lasting for hours, when the prisoners were ordered ‘Caps off!’ or ‘Caps on!’ again and again”; in the Mauthausen camp, “a macabre execution scene that [. . .] had been accompanied by music from a gypsy band forced to play the melody of ‘J’attendrai’ (‘I will wait’)” raises your neck hair.

Down the line, getting all the way through The Witness House becomes an uphill struggle. For the first half, and a good chunk of the second, each chapter focuses on a new arrival at the house. The writing is vibrant, the characters animated, but you find yourself fidgeting in anticipation of when the exposé will cease, and hoping a climactic fever will finally overcome redundancy. However, you shake the blues near the end, when some of the most dark stories of Nazi Germany are revealed. At times you really are amazed at the similarity to fiction this true story has.

– review by John Coleman

January 10, 2011

Whitewashing History In Mark Twain

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BY SWEETMAN

Mark Twain has been surrounded by controversy since he began publishing his writing. Witty, satirical and irreverent, William Faulkner hailed him as “the father of American literature.” Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910, and his novels and essays were a reflection of his life and times. Twain’s writing is often light and humorous but he was equally infamous for his penchant to delve into sobering societal hypocrisies and inhumanity toward others.

For these dark themes, Twain’s most notable novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have been mired in controversy over the appropriateness of teaching them to young readers. They have been banned from libraries, schools and curriculum since they were first published. The controversy surrounding Twain’s these novels still rages into the 21st century; his two most famous novels still rank in the top 100 of the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged and banned books.

Enter Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who decided, after forty years of studying and teaching the writings of Twain, to change the content of both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His changes substitute racially derogatory words for African-Americans and Native-Americans for, in Professor Gribben’s opinion, the more socially acceptable 21st century terms “slave” and “Indian” (wouldn’t “Native American” be the more politically correct version?). He reasons that by substituting the n- and i-words for more socially acceptable words he is eliminating “preemptive censorship” of the novels and thus preventing further cries of inappropriateness in public schools. Professor Gribben defends his edits as offering to teachers and general readers “an option for a more palatable reading experience.”

Well doesn’t that just make altering a dead author’s work The Right Thing To Do! And maybe the politically correct white-washing of Classic American Literature will revise our unsavory and uncomfortable history of slavery, segregation and racial inequality!

Censorship is censorship. No matter how earnestly one feels he/she is defending an author, alteration of the author’s final text to make it more “palatable” to the masses is censorship. Mark Twain did not use the word “slave” 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and no amount of good intention by Professor Gribben gives him the right to change Twain’s work. Furthermore, using a less inflammatory yet definitively wrong word as the substitution for a highly offensive, racially charged word sets Professor Gribben squarely on a path of whitewashing then rinsing an unfortunate part of American History.

There is a word for Professor Gribben’s particular brand of censorship as he is not the first well-meaning expert to try to gloss a work of literature to make it less offensive. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician, decided to expurgate the works of William Shakespeare and Edward Gibbons to render them more appropriate for the delicate eyes of 19th century women and children. His edits were soundly ridiculed and rejected. The term bowdlerize is now eponymous with literary censorship.

Gribben’s bowdlerization of Twain’s writing is an act of incredible vanity. During a reading as part of the NEA’s Big Read Program in Alabama, Gribben read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and routinely substituted “slave” for the n-word to make for a more comfortable reading. Apparently Professor Gribben liked the swap so much that he is perfectly comfortable tweaking Twain’s works in writing to make it easier on our modern eyes.

Censorship of Twain’s novels does both the author and the content of the novels a tremendous disservice. It is impossible to know if Mark Twain would make politically correct changes to his novels today and we can only guess what he would want. Twain wrote in the vernacular of the time. The derogatory slang use of the n-word in the 1870s is not burdened with the unspeakable weight that it carries in the 21st century. Yet that unspeakable weight is the burden of a society that has to live with the acts and deeds of its predecessors, like it or not. Difficult as it is to read, write and speak, censorship of a novel that reflects true historical times does not protect or teach young readers and bowdlerizing literature to make reading more palatable teaches nothing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are tremendous novels with a sad truth still present today: our capability for committing inhumane acts. As a society, we haven’t changed enough to read Twain’s novels with any historical distance. To the contrary, the power of Twain’s writing has drastically changed to make his words uncomfortable, taboo and unspeakable in classrooms. Expunging those words changes nothing within our present culture. It’s just censorship.

November 3, 2010

THIS Reads: NaNoWriMo Killed the Literary Star

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I always find myself frustrated by all the books I’m not reading. My “to read” list is always miles longer than the list of books I’ve finished. Compounding my frustration is that I’m a slow reader. I have friends who readily soar through three or four books each week and, unless all I do is sit in a chair for six hours a day intently focused on one book, knocking through multiple titles only days apart is something I rarely accomplish.

Then again, at least I’m reading, right? In an article at Salon in which she rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Laura Miller complains that there aren’t enough readers and far too many writers. And while there are statistics revealing that many folks in the U.S. spend more leisure time watching television or using a computer than reading, I don’t believe the argument that there is a dearth of readers in the U.S. People are reading; what people are reading has changed.

In the age of technology, reading occurs outside of books with an increasing frequency, something Miller doesn’t acknowledge in her article (which I “read” online although, because it doesn’t occur between the pages of a bound book, might not count as actual “reading” in Miller-world). Each Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review, in print; I try to read most of the New Yorker each week. When I travel, I frequently pack back-issues of magazines and literary journals I’ve been meaning to get around to and haven’t: Bitch, Poets & Writers, Zone 3, Zoetrope, The Normal School. I don’t work at a typical desk job, but if I did, I imagine that a chunk of my day would be spent reading articles and blogs online. Does all of this, because I’m not purchasing my reading from a traditional bookstore or downloading it on a Kindle, mean I’m reading-deficient?

To be fair, Miller’s article mostly deals with the reasons why someone shouldn’t participate in what she calls the “self-aggrandizing frenzy” of NaNoWriMo: “…while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.” She’s right: getting published is not half as hard as getting someone to purchase your book, read it, and recommend it to others who will also purchase it once you’ve been published. And it’s true that few authors are commercially successful. But reading novels and writing them isn’t a zero-sum game.

Maybe I’m touchy because I am participating in NaNoWriMo and I take it personally that Miller refers to writing as a “narcissistic commerce,” even if I’m not sure where the “commerce” part comes in. If I’m supposed to be getting wealthy from all this, I wish someone would have told me long ago so I could have the last laugh over my friends who elected law and business school.

Miller implies that Wrimos (NaNo parlance for participating writers) aren’t reading any books or, at least by her judgement, not enough of them. I disagree with this assumption, too. Maybe Wrimos aren’t reading the same types of books Miller would read (she goes on a long rant against self-help books in her article) but reading is reading, regardless of the material. And, unless it’s Nicole Richie’s latest novel, I don’t think reading in all its many forms is making anyone more stupid.

So in addition to all the magazines, lit journals (both in print and online), book reviews and newspapers this particular Wrimo has read over the last month, I also enjoyed Julia Glass’s novel The Widower’s Tale, a story shaped by four voices that represent various corners of modern American culture. Set against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, limousine liberals, and a longing for the past in the face of rapid change, Glass succeeds in illuminating the darkest corners of our hypocrisy and hopes, all with her characteristic tenderness and humor.

Leslie Marmon Silko has been a favorite writer of mine ever since I read Ceremony. The Turquoise Ledge is her first book in ten years and a beautiful memoir that fuses elements of her family’s mixed-race heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world. Her imaginative storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; for example, her first divorce is discussed alongside the eradication of the Laguna language.

University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt presents a generational and nuanced portrait of African-Americans in Children of Fire, a uniquely framed history that traces the shifts in culture, policy, and social norms that have defined race relations and institutions of oppression in the U.S. from when the first Africans were sold in Jamestown in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Holt’s history reminds us that lives mired in history as it is lived are far more complex and dynamic than the flattened accounts textbooks would have us believe. I don’t generally read histories but appreciated Holt’s perspective and sharp narration. Children of Fire is a long book but it doesn’t lag.

Finally, confidential to all the Wrimos clattering away at their keyboard out there: Carolyn Kellogg is on our side.

October 10, 2010

Book Review: Henry VIII: Wolfman by A.E. Moorat

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HENRY VIII: WOLFMAN
by A.E. Moorat

Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
(July 2010, $9.55, 416 pages)

Once upon a time, I was offered the chance to review Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter, A.E. Moorat’s first novel. I almost passed on it because I was a little wary of historical fiction mash-ups, but I knew it had zombies in it, so I figured it was worth reading at least once. In the novel, Queen Victoria fights the evil clan of Baal with the help of the Royal Protektor, Maggie Brown. Most of England is completely ignorant of the demonic dangers, so the Royal battles are suppose to be kept secret.

It turned out to be one of the best novels I have ever read. I was expecting a mix of Brian Keene & Phillipa Gregory; instead, Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter was more like “Army of Darkness” meets “The Mighty Boosh”: a very entertaining fantasy-adventure, but not quite horror. The novel made me a Moorat fan, so I was very excited to read the next novel.

In Henry VIII Wolfman, the King also deals with the clan of Baal but the novel is very different from Queen Victoria. In an extremely long and elaborate flashback between the prologue and epilogue, mainly told from Henry’s point of view, Henry VIII: Wolfman is an alternative historical account from a universe completely different from the believable, behind-the-scenes story of real historical events in Queen Victoria. Even though I didn’t find Wolfman nearly as amusing as Moorat’s first novel, it was a great psychological-horror story about a king struggling with a major life change while trying to save his people.

In the prologue, Henry has transformed into a werewolf and has devoured the Queen, though which wife is not specified. He then remembers everything that led up to the moment described in the prologue: Henry is beginning to get fat, he’s in the Palace of Greenwich and Anne Boleyn catches his eye. There are also hints at a romantic interest with Jane Seymour, who turns out to be quite the noble woman.

Henry’s major problems begin when a wolfen cell, led by a werewolf Malchek and tired of being the lowest rung on the ladder among the Baal descendants, uses King Henry as a pawn by infecting him with lycan blood. The king tries to hide this turn of events from everyone at court. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas More is falsely accused of being a werewolf by fake witchfinders and, due to court politics, Thomas Boleyn and the Duke of Norfolk refuse to come to his aid. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who is searching for More, is desperate to find a reason for the Pope to declare war on the Wolfen, despite the treaty signed at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, or else convince the King to abandon his quest for revenge.

The best parts of this story, for me, were the witchfinders, Hob and Agatha. These two reminded me of the entertaining Lord Quimby and his man-servant Perkins in Queen Victoria. I wish there had been more of their humor in this novel. I wasn’t sure what type of mash-up the author was trying to write aside from the obvious twist on Henry’s reign. I am still a fan of Moorat, though I’m hoping he will finally give Lord Quimby and Perkins from a spin-off novel of their own.

Ursula K. Raphael