Sunday, May 29, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

How many times did I say I must read this book, but didn't? And how many times did I read that it was the best book about war—often. I finally picked it up and now wonder why it isn't mandatory reading for all people— legislators, high school students, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. It's a graphic look at the ugliness, the waste of life, and the inability of the powerful to find another way to exercise power.

Often the young are encouraged by their elders to enlist. In Remarque's book it is a school teacher who inspires young men to enlist in the German army. At the beginning of World War I Paul Baumer is one of the young men who volunteers. He is the voice we hear, the eyes we use to contemplate the world of Paul and his friends who are sent to the Western Front.

Survival is day to day, hour after hour.The conditions are deplorable, the food is meager and small parcels of land are both won and lost—passed back and forth like a checker game. This is a book that pushes the reader into the trenches. It is a book that holds up the losses. Of course there's death, limbs amputated, eyes blank, but there are other losses. Many of Paul's comrades die in the field or at a hospital. Others , including Paul, become alienated—lose their souls.

In one poignant scene Paul kills a French soldier who has entered his physical space. He is devastated when he hears the soldier gurgle before he dies. When Paul looks him in the eye he promises that he'll take care of his widow, his children. This man looks just like him—simply a man. Of course he will not look ater the widow or the children, but he does ponder the carnage and the question the why of war.

" ...a mountain in Germany," Paul says, "cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat."

When these men return home they are alienated from those who haven't experienced war.

Take a Chance Challenge

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

As I read Red Harvest I envisioned a movie with stars I've only seen on late night television—Edward G. Robinson or Peter Lorrie. How much of this book is based on Hammett's prior occupation as a Pinkerton detective is interesting to contemplate.

A Continental Detective Agency "Op", is sent to "Poisonville" —which is a mining town in Montana—possibly Butte. When a newspaper editor, Donald Willson, intent on cleaning up the town is murdered his father hires the "Op". The town is corrupt, including Elihu Willson, Donald's father. The cast of characters who navigate around the town is priceless. There's a series of crooks, a corrupt police chief, thugs who fight the union and Dinah Brand—a femme fatale and a lover of money. She also has amassed squalid information about most of the characters in the story.

The police chief's brother had been murdered many years before and another strand of the story explores who is responsible for his death. Criminals are played off against one another as the "Op" and two additional agents—Foley and Linehan track down leads. Bootleggers appear, a warehouse is bombed, the "Op" is drugged and ends up alongside Dinah who has an ice-pick in her breast.

If you're looking for a logical plot this may not be the book for you. What makes this book a wonderful fun read are the plethora of characters that walk in and off stage. Add to that the language.

"I had done two-thirds of the distance when an automobile came down towards me, moving fast, leaking gun-fire from the rear."

Vintage Mystery Challenge
Mystery and Suspence Challenge

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fateless by Imre Kertesz

This is a fictional account, but based upon Imre Kertesz's own background. He, like the young fourteen year old protagonist of the book, was incarcerated in a concentration camp as an adolescent.

In Fateless Gyororgy's father was sent off to a concentration camp; however, the way his Hungarian family handled the situation Gyorogy was unaware of the implications of his father's situation. While the family exhibited sadness he seems aloof from the reality. Of course the fact that the family shopped for essentials, including a knapsack, appeared to belie the gravity of being sent to a labor camp.

Not too long after his father's leave-taking Gyorogy and other boys are sent off to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald and then he is sent to Zeitz as a worker. Because he lied about his age he is saved from a sure death. It's difficult to appreciate or fathom the manner in which he adapts to his surroundings. There's a dispassionate tone to his way of seeing what is happening all around him. On the surface it appears that he lacks a compass, a moral stick to measure the baseness of the degradation.

Initially Gyorogy is under the delusion that he'll be working as a laborer. When he first sees the men with their prison striped clothes he wonders about the prisoners, but doesn't understand that he, too, will be issued the same clothing.

Perhaps his reaction to what is happening around him is less about detachment and more about dissembling–or removing himself from the reality by standing off and observing what is happening and acting as an objective observer.

Is it that he becomes inured to the daily humiliations or that by seeing them day by day they become part of an orderly pattern? He displays little outward compassion and when he compares the lean tight bodies of the Nazis to the emaciated prisoners he describes the Jews in less than faltering terms. He had never resented wearing the yellow star, or if he did he didn't react to the star other than liking the pattern.

Over time his body wears down and he, like so many others, does what is necessary to live. That includes allowing someone else to be taken away in his stead. But is also includes not allowing anyone to define him as a victim.

Eventually the war ends and he returns to Budapest where he feels lost and he is unable to relate to others. When he tries to explain how events uncoiled bit by bit —step by step, his listeners recoil from his conclusions. It sounds as if we are all responsible for what has happened and that is too monstrous to contemplate.

Take -A-Chance Challenge
Critics Choice
Near East Challenge 2011

At the Entrance to The Garden of Eden by Yossi Klein Halevi

What happens when a religious Israeli Jew decides to engage with Christians and Muslims during their times of religious practice? This book is a pilgrimage, a desire to bridge the differences and find the roads to a peaceful mediation upon God.

What ensues in 1998, when he first begins walking this path, is a look at the inner soul of the three religions that occupy a narrow piece of land. His walk includes praying with a Sufi master whose mission is to seek religious peace, an encounter with a Sufi healer who is also an exorcist, dialogues with an Armenian monk who also suffered from a holocaust and an encounter with nuns who belong to an order called the Beatitudes intent on reconciliation with Jews. One of the nuns teaches him about mediation and contemplation. He also meets a monk whose life's work includes being a conduit for reconciliation between the occupants of the Holy land.

Along the way Halevi meets people who are intent on forging dialogues between the groups. While the Sufis welcome him they are the only Muslim group that he is able to enter.

Halevi doesn't walk alone on this pilgrimage, he engages the help of Eliyahu who has forged friendships with a number of Sufi religious men. When he phones Eliyau he is greeted by these words: Shalom aleichem, Salaam aleikum.

Abu Falester, a Sufi, says, "Make your mind and heart a fit place for God to live."

Sister Johanna says, "You don't give your life to God once, you do it every minute, in the choices you make."

But Halevi isn't an observer who stands on the sidelines watching, he joins the celebratory observances. Those are some of the most moving parts of the book. It isn't as if he relinquishes the teachings of Judaism; it is the recognition of the commonality of transcendence and prayer.

"Each of us was entrusted with a minuscule piece of God's plan. Impatience was futile; only the massive accumulation of small acts of good would ultimately ensure the plan's success..."

By the end of the book many of his perceptions have been challenged and he is left with    several paradoxes. If in Judaism one is not to do to others what has been done to you then how do you deal with the occupation? And how do you deal with the reality of the other?

Perhaps one needs to read Emmanuel Levinas to grapple with an understanding of the Other? What Halevi offers is a beautiful book that enters into the soul of two other strands of worship.

He quotes from Paul Lakeland: "Faith is a primal force... Faith is the dynamic element in life, what keeps us in process, in becoming , in possibility."

Non-Fiction Challenge

Monday, May 2, 2011

The End of a Family Story by Peter Nadas

Before reading this book it's imperative that the reader familiarize herself with the historical context— the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Post-Communism in Europe. This is the setting of the novel. The story is told through the eyes of a child, Peter,—and that means that there are distortions and events that are quite tangental to what is happening.

Peter's grandfather is a pivotal force in the novel. His loss of identity involves his desire to wipe out the family's Judaism. But society has determined who he is and it isn't easy to become someone else.

I found this book uncomfortable—in so far as following the action. Often events felt like they lost their moorings and floated into a stream of consciousness. Peter's thoughts tended to hover and lose their logical narrative—but he is a child narrator.

What is intriguing is how a child's reality differs from the adult reality, thus fiction and imagination or fantasy meld and the reader is dependent upon her own understanding of events.

Read East 2011 Challenge