Category Archives: Books

Reading With Fakename: In the Garden of Beasts

It’s been a while since I brought back the regular feature Reading With Fakename.  But this book deserves it.

Pretty much everyone has read books about the horrors of Nazi rule, but this is the first book I’ve ever read which describes what was happening in Germany in the first years of the Nazi takeover.  And that really is the question, isn’t it?  How could this have happened?  The book begins in 1933, when Hitler has first been named Chancellor.

Essentially four things were happening within the U.S.  First, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression.  Immigration and immigrants were highly frowned upon, since the perception was that immigrants would take or compete for the few available jobs left to existing citizens.  How timely does that seem now?

Second, it wasn’t just any immigrants, it was particularly Jews.  Jews were viewed as a stereotype: always rich and controlling, particularly controlling the banks and the media.  This may have been dismissed as ignorance, if it weren’t for the fact that two of the most powerful people in the State Department agreed.  There were quotas for how many people were permitted to emigrate from any particular country.  These quotas were set by the Department of Labor, but it was the State Department which actually issued visas for travel.  They quietly and unofficially reduced the number of visas issued to persons from Germany (especially Jews) to 10% of the quota.  Even though they knew that Jews were being killed and persecuted inside Germany.  Treatment of the Jews in Germany was dismissed as a domestic problem that the U.S. had no right to interfere in.

Third, it was about the money.  (Isn’t it always?)  The U.S. didn’t want to piss Germany off, because Germany still owed a lot of money as reparations from WWI.

And fourth, there was zero appetite for becoming involved in another war after WWI, which was a horrendous conflict.  No matter how despicable Germany began to behave, it was viewed as a “European problem”.  Isolationism was the mood of the day.  Bear in mind that the reason the U.S. entered WWII was that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and had nothing to do with the noble cause of saving the Jews.

The book is told as the story of William Dodd, who became the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in 1933, after five other much smarter people had turned it down.  Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago, but was unhappy in his job.  First, he felt he had not been given the recognition he deserved, which I think means he thought he should have been offered the Chairmanship of the department.  Second, he was trying to write a book about the Old South, but his teaching schedule was so heavy, he had no time or energy left to write.  So he began a campaign to be named an Ambassador.  What he wanted was someplace sleepy, where he wouldn’t have to work too hard, like the Netherlands.

When Dodd went to Berlin, he took his entire family with him; his wife and his grown son Bill Jr. and grown daughter Martha.  Much of the book follows the escapades of Martha, who was, to put it in a family-friendly way, a party girl.  She was generally sleeping with four or five men at a time, including a couple of Nazis, one of whom (Rudolf Diels) was the original head of the Gestapo.  Diels was ruthless, but somewhere along the line developed a conscience, and actually testified for the prosecution in the Nuremberg trials.

One of her lovers was a guy named Boris, who was an attaché to the Soviet Embassy.  Unbeknownst to Martha, he was an agent for the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB.  The two of them fell in love, but it was a doomed relationship.  Her last letter from him arrived after she had already returned to the U.S., after her father was recalled.  She didn’t learn for many years that that letter was written at gunpoint, and that after writing it, Boris was executed by the NKVD.  He was apparently seen as too friendly to the West.  Ironically, the letter was intended to keep Martha’s feelings for Boris alive, since the NKVD was trying to recruit her as a spy.  It wouldn’t have done for her to know that they were about to execute Boris.

Dodd was initially a milquetoast.  He took to heart FDR’s advice that he should set an example of freedom and American values, rather than “meddling” in the internal affairs of Germany.   (This meant, don’t say bad things about how they’re treating the Jews.) Dodd was more than willing to believe that attacks on Jews, and Americans, and others, were isolated incidents, not condoned by the leadership.  But eventually it began to soak into his thick skull that he was being duped, and he began to speak out, making him even more unpopular with his superiors than he already was for a number of petty reasons.  Upon his death, he was viewed as almost the lone voice in government, warning of what was to come.  He was the American Cassandra.  If he had any doubts about his assessment, those doubts were erased by the infamous “Night of the Long Knives”.

This review only scratches the surface of the incredible amount of information in the book, but I wanted to include a story that made a huge impression on me, the story of a guy named Fritz Haber.  Haber was a German scientist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918 for inventing the Haber process, a method of synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen gasses.  He is also known as the father of chemical warfare, starting with the development of chlorine gas.  His wife begged him to stop doing this kind of work, to which he replied “Death is death”.  Nine days after chlorine gas was first used against the French at Ypres in WWI, his wife committed suicide.

Haber had just one problem–he was a Jew.  He was allowed to continue in his post as director of Germany’s institute of chemistry, even after laws were passed that essentially made it illegal for Jews to be employed at all.  Nevertheless, he began to see the handwriting on the wall.  He came to Dodd, asking to emigrate to the U.S. Dodd told him he couldn’t help, because that year’s quota had already been filled.  This of course, was not true., although Dodd believed it was.  Haber ended up emigrating to Great Britain, and died within six months.

In what has to be one of the most tragic ironies of history, one of the things Haber invented was a pesticide called Zyklon-A.  The Nazis tinkered with it and made Zyklon-B.  This is the gas used to murder a million people, most of them Jews, in the gas chambers of the concentration camps.

Reading with Fakename: Frank Sinatra In A Blender

This is the first novel by a writer named Matthew McBride, who is from Missouri (as is everyone on my father’s side of the family).
As often happens, I read his second novel first (“A Swollen Red Sun”), because Amazon pushed it on me relentlessly. But not to blame it on them…it did sound like the kind of book I’d like, and I did. That second book takes place in Gasconade County, Missouri, which was once known as the methamphetamine capital of the country.
Meth is the absolute scourge of the rural Midwest/upper South. I,in fact, recently learned that my favorite Missouri cousin from early adulthood is presently in prison on a conviction related to meth, and it isn’t the first time for him.
That book features meth cookers and dealers, crooked cops, murder, and overall desperation. McBride seems to know this world a little too well. His bio says he’s a former assembly-line worker turned writer, and that he writes about the people he knows. I wonder if he knows my cousin? I wonder if he’s in prison.
Frank Sinatra In A Blender’s main character is Nick Valentine, a private investigator in St. Louis who used to be a cop before his drinking got the best of him. Now that he’s been kicked off the force, he’s turned drinking into an art form. He always seems to order at least three kinds of liquor at a time. In a rare display of restraint toward the end of the book, he stops at a convenience store and buys a bottle of vodka, a bottle of orange juice, and a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.
Usually it’s more like a White Russian, a shot of Maker’s Mark, and two Coronas with lime. That’s when he’s at his usual hangout, a strip club called Cowboy Roy’s Fantasyland. Nick’s creative use of alcohol is one of the ongoing gags in the book, and is part of what makes it so incredibly funny. Except, that isn’t really funny…is it? There is a lot of cognitive dissonance in both books. You find yourself laughing hysterically while all around you there is a mind-boggling level of violence and brutality and torture. Ha Ha, right? If you can stand to read it, the point does sort of creep up on you, that there is a certain level of immunity we’ve achieved when it comes to horror.
Frank Sinatra is Nick’s dog, a very macho Yorkshire Terrier. In good conscience, I can’t reveal to you whether or not Frank ends up in a blender (but if he did, he would fit in it).
The book is described by the publisher, and therefore on Amazon, as a “cult classic”. For whom, I wonder? In the past, this would be called a “hard-boiled” detective novel, because the detectives are always wry and sardonic and world-weary. This book updates the level of violence and adds modern elements (like meth) not dreamed of in the days of Sam Spade. Both books are brilliant, not least because you discover that you can, in fact, still be horrified.

Translating From the Scottish

(A subcategory of Reading With Fakename.)

I’ve recently finished all five novels by a Scottish crime writer named Craig Robertson, who is from Glasgow. Just to start with, that makes him a Glaswegian. What??? Shouldn’t that be Glasgowan?

There’s a saying, attributed to various Brits, that the British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language. The closest actual quote is from Oscar Wilde, who said, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language”.

Reading British writers, you get used to certain common terms, such as the fact that the trunk of a car is called a boot and the hood is called a bonnet. A multi-level parking structure is called a car park, not a garage. A garage is a place you go to get your car repaired. And so on.

Reading something by a Scottish writer adds a whole other level of separation. I’ve read all five of these books on Kindle. One of the things I like best about Kindle is that you can highlight passages you want to return to. And it has a built-in dictionary, so if you highlight only one word, it will bring up the definition. I absolutely adore this feature. While reading a book, you don’t have stop and interrupt your train of thought by going to the dictionary or online to look up an unfamiliar word; it’s right there at your fingertips. You don’t have to write it down to look up later, by which time you will have forgotten the context it was used in.

Except. The built-in dictionary is the Oxford American Dictionary. I’m sure you can see the problem here. If the dictionary doesn’t know the word, it pops up with a message, “No definition found”. I see that a lot. So I’m going to give you just a few “No definition found” words from Robertson’s 4th novel and let you try your hand at them. In the next paragraph, I’ll tell you the definition (because you can find the definitions online).

Gallus. (He uses this one a lot.)
Carnaptious.
Lairy.
Blootered.

There are other turns of phrase, such as this one: “Where were you, Stevo?” Answer: “I don’t know. I was drunk. I was out my face.” In another case, detectives wanted to know the answer to something, not from the outset or the get-go, but from the off.

And now our definitions:
Gallus. Gallus is a term for a rooster. In Scottish usage, it means daring, confident, cheeky…in other words, cocksure.
Carnaptious. Bad-tempered, quarrelsome, snappy. This one I could have guessed from its similarity to “fractious”.
Lairy. Behaving in a loud, excited manner.
Blootered. This is probably the easiest one to guess. It means very drunk. Obviously related to the American “blotto”.

Thanks to Craig Robertson for this trip down Vocabulary Lane. As for a quick review, his first book (“Random”) is excellent, as is his last book (“The Last Refuge”). The ones in between are decent. The first four books take place in Glasgow; “The Last Refuge” takes place in the Faroe Islands, making it a fascinating virtual journey into a part of the world few people venture into (or want to). Speaking of definitions, it’s pretty much the definition of “desolate”.

Reading With Fakename: The Orphan Choir

I’ve mentioned before that the way I choose books is varied, and one of my methods is simply to go to the library and cruise the shelves of “new releases”. Unfortunately, since I live in a small city where few resources are allocated to the public library, “new releases” usually means “things that were published last year”. If I want something truly new, I have to buy it from Amazon.
But that’s okay. If I haven’t heard of it, it’s new to me, right?
So it is with The Orphan Choir. When choosing a book this way, I go with a combination of how intriguing the title is, and what it says about the book and the writer on the inside cover.
The writer in this case is Sophie Hannah, who is British, writes “psychological thrillers”, and has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new novel featuring Hercule Poirot. I thought that was enough recommendation for me.
In the book, Louise Beeston and her husband Stuart live in a four-story (counting the basement, I believe) house in Cambridge. Their seven year-old son Joseph is away at school at Saviour College. Because he’s in the choir, he is required to board there, and can only come home on holidays, not even on weekends. Louise is consumed with grief, missing him. Her husband is obsessed with having the outside of their house cleaned of the 100-year old grime and coal dust that coats the brick.
Louise has a different problem, which is noise. Their next-door neighbor is driving her crazy playing loud music, and always the same songs. She calls the Environmental Health Council (these are the people who apparently respond to noise complaints, rather than the police), and they send over a woman named Pat Jervis who is surprisingly sympathetic to her. She starts keeping a diary of when the noise occurs, and a strange thing happens. Suddenly she starts hearing choral music at odd times. Not Queen, not Dolly Parton, but choral music that sounds as if her son is singing with the choir.
When her husband insists on going through with the cleaning of the exterior of the house, she insists on buying a second home to escape to. This country home is Paradise…except you know something is wrong. The rules require absolute quiet. Children, for example, are not permitted to jump into the swimming pool, because it would make a splash that might offend others. Louise seems to be heading toward “Be careful what you wish for”.
At first though, it’s idyllic. And then, Louise starts hearing the choral music again, far from the city and from her obnoxious neighbor. What can this mean?
The end is not at all what I expected and is a little jarring, and I would have said, not quite my style, but 24 hours later, I still find it haunting. So I will probably read more of Sophie Hannah.
I love accidentally discovering these little gems.

Reading With Fakename: Poppet

This is a book by Mo Hayder, whose work is generally, I believe, classified as “horror”, but could also fall into the milder category of “mystery” or “crime”. She has won the Edgar Award.
Horror isn’t a category that attracts me, although in my twenties, my friends and I were nuts about Stephen King, and read every book of his as soon as it came out. In fact, he couldn’t write fast enough for us. Kind of a Harry Potter phenomenon. But, I got bored with it eventually.
A few years ago I picked up Mo Hayder’s book Pig Island during one of my random cruisings of the “recently released” shelves at the library. I was so literally horrified by this book that I swore I would never read another of Hayder’s books. But…it was well-written and suspenseful. And original.
I’m often tempted by good book covers. In the case of Poppet, it shows a picture of what appears to be a doll. It has a very smooth face that looks somewhere between the face of a baby and the face of a cat. Its “hands” also look somewhere between the hands of a baby and the paws of a cat. It’s dressed in something lacy. But its very large, wide-set, blue eyes are unmistakably human. There is something very creepy about it.
The book takes place mostly in Beechway High Secure Unit in Bristol, England. This is a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane and those who are so in danger of harming themselves they cannot live in the outside world. Recently there have been two deaths and an episode of self-mutilation (a resident named Moses dug his eye out with a spoon in the dining room). The residents attribute all these events to a creature they call The Maude.
In its past, Beechway was a workhouse for the poor. As legend has it, Maude was an actual employee of the workhouse, a nun and dwarf who would sit on residents’ chests as punishment for perceived infractions of right thinking, mostly thoughts involving lust. Maude’s grave is alleged to be somewhere on the grounds, so this is apparently her ghost creating all the mayhem.
There are many, many characters, who are revealed somewhat slowly. But the first person we’re introduced to in any detail is AJ.
AJ is a nurse who has only recently been promoted to supervisor. AJ is a gentle soul, who lives with his Aunt Patience and his little dog Stewart (Stewie). But AJ begins to suspect there is more to what’s happening than some supernatural intervention by this mass delusion called The Maude. He involves the police.
If you’re like me, in the beginning you’re thinking, Oh no, not another one of those. Ho hum. A murder in an insane asylum. But that would be to diminish Hayder’s skills. I wonder if she didn’t deliberately choose this kind of setting to take you down an entirely different and original path. It was masterful.
If you read classic mysteries, like Agatha Christie, you will find yourself slapping your forehead for not figuring out who committed the crime. However, if you look back, you’ll find that many clues were omitted.
In this book, all the clues are there. In fact, I suspected I knew “who” very early on, and I turned out to be right. But I wasn’t 100% certain, and I didn’t know “how” or “why”. Just a great book. Now that I’m over my aversion after reading Pig Island, I’ll read more of Mo Hayder.

Reading With Fakename: John Le Carre

Presently I’m reading the latest book (published this year) by Le Carre, titled “A Delicate Truth”. No offense intended, but I thought John Le Carre was dead. But he isn’t. He’s 82 and still writing, and writing well. How marvelous is that?
A little about the book: The story is about an “incident” that takes place on the Isle of Gibraltar, which is a British territory, much to the annoyance of Spain. There is a very hush-hush mission to capture a “high-value target” (read: terrorist) who is on the island to purchase weapons from an arms dealer who is a British informant. The mission goes horribly wrong, although some of the participants don’t learn this for years.
In some ways the book is as suspenseful as anything else Le Carre ever wrote. And while it may seem dated now, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” should be on every list of the top 100 books ever written. The problem is, this book suffers from poor editing. It shifts from one person talking to another person talking or from back then to right now, with no warning. It should be a new chapter, or at the very least, a little division like ****** at the bottom of a line. So you often find yourself having to go back two pages to catch where the direction changed. Very annoying.
One of the other challenges, although I find it kind of charming, is the language. It’s British English, which I don’t speak very well, although I’m getting better at it. A bonnet, you say? Isn’t that something you wear on your head? No? In keeping with that, there is the British “habit” I guess…I don’t know how else to describe it…of asking a question at the end of a statement. I specifically noted this passage, which I swear I am repeating word for word, to illustrate this “habit”.
Referring to a retired diplomat: “He’d got as high as they’d let him go, mind you. Reached his ceiling, hadn’t he?–as far as they were concerned. Nobody’s going to give him the top billet, not after what happened in Hamburg, are they? You’d never know when it was coming home to roost–well, would you?”
I wonder if this happens because Britain is too close to France. French syntax is of course all backward as far as English speakers are concerned, but it seems to have a way of rubbing off. Prime example: Cajun and Creole speech in Louisiana. Say you’d like to make a statement: “I’d like some French fries”. How you speak it is a question. “I could have some French fries?” (My unspoken response was always, Well, you could, but you’d have to ask for them.) Or you really want to emphasize a statement. You don’t say “I really don’t like French fries”. You say, “I don’t like French fries, me”. We now know for a fact that it is you personally who doesn’t like French fries.
None of this takes away from Le Carre’s grasp of his subject matter or his ability to tell a story. And without saying so outright, he asks moral questions. Where do you draw the line between secrecy and accountability? Between good intentions and the bad results of those intentions?
It’s a very timely story. Arabic terrorists. Edward Snowden. I’m almost finished, and at the moment, I’m fearing for the survival of both the main characters. We shall see.

Reading With Fakename: Lawrence Anthony

Lawrence Anthony wrote three books.  In order they are “Babylon’s Ark”,  “The Elephant Whisperer”, and “The Last Rhinos”.

Anthony was a South African conservationist who started his career in the insurance business, moved on to real estate, then more or less in mid-life, he purchased a 5,000 acre nature preserve called Thula Thula.  Thula Thula sat on one side of numerous other nature preserves owned by the Zulu, and he made it his life’s work to be able to “drop the fences”, creating one gigantic nature preserve that would come close to creating the kind of space in Africa that wildlife used to enjoy.

The politics of negotiating with the Zulu, as well as with the various competing conservation agencies were mind-boggling.  It’s a miracle any animals are left alive in Africa.  In between these efforts, he is hands-on taking care of a number of wild species and fighting poachers.

His books are a bit out of order.  The Elephant Whisperer should have been first.  This was his life’s work, at Thula Thula, and  the other two are excursions he made from there.  Babylon’s Ark is about saving the Baghdad Zoo, shortly after the U.S. invasion.  Once the largest zoo in the Mideast, by the time he got there, there were only 35 animals left.  The others had either been blown up, or captured by the locals for food.  Some of them had eaten the others.

The Last Rhinos is similar.  He learns that the last wild population of Northern White Rhinos is in an abandoned park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been in a civil war for 20 years.  There are only 15 animals left, but he knows of 4 captive Northern Whites in a zoo in the Czech Republic.  He hopes this will be enough to keep the sub-species viable, though it is highly unlikely.  His attitude is, “We have to try”.

I read The Elephant Whisperer last.  This is where it all began for Anthony.  One of the first things he does is take in a semi-rogue herd of elephants, nine individuals in all.  If he doesn’t take them, they will all be shot.  He wants them to be wild, but it doesn’t work out.  Contrary to popular opinion, he grasps that he must make “friends” with the matriarch, Nana.

As the matriarch goes, so goes the herd.  In fits and starts, he does it.  He makes friends with Nana’s Deputy Matriarch, Frankie.  At night, Frankie is in charge because Nana has developed a cataract in one eye.  He makes friends with Mnumzane, the aspiring alpha bull who is really too young for the role at 14.

At last he begins to disengage.  More babies are born and the herd is becoming wilder.  Yet they seem to have an uncanny sense of when he will return from traveling and gather at the fence to his home compound.

On a lighter note, Anthony introduced me to the word “tokoloshe”.  I’m thinking of adopting a little feral kitten, assuming the owner will give him up.  That remains to be seen.  She was very keen on the idea when he was first born, but now he’s three weeks old and has his eyes open.  His mother has moved him to the back porch where he can be picked up and cuddled regularly.  My cat (and my dog) are getting old.  I’d like to have this little guy.  My cat is the most maternal being on the planet, and would make him feel at home.  Stormy the current cat would cuddle and groom a mouse if it would stand still long enough.

So if I do get him, I’m naming him Toko, short for Tokoloshe.  Tokoloshe is a Zulu word for little demon spirits that come out at night to do mischief.  The example Anthony gave is that the Zulu keep their beds up on bricks.  If you don’t, the Tokoloshe crawl under your bed at night and jump up and down, just to wake you up.  There has never been a better name for a kitten.

But back to Anthony.

In March of 2012, Anthony died of a heart attack at home.  That night, and for the next week, the elephant herd silently gathered at the fence before his compound.  They knew.  You can see this vigil on YouTube.

It doesn’t matter what you ascribe this to–they knew.  It’s a phenomenal sense of smell and hearing, but it’s more than that.  Somehow there is emotion there.  When you see elephants handling the bones of their dead, you know there is something more going on there than we understand.