White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey – Book

White Rose

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey starts with a real resistance movement inside Germany, the White Rose Society, and builds a novel around it. We can imagine that there were Germans living in Nazi Germany who did not buy into Hitler’s racism, his use of fear and instant retribution, the way he used his paranoia about what people said and did in privacy to justify invading everyone’s privacy, and setting neighbors to spy on neighbors.

In White Rose, Black Forest we meet a young German woman who was imprisoned for a short time because she had a boyfriend in the White Rose Society, the German resistance group which published underground news sheets called “The White Rose”. Franka Gerber, our young lady, a nurse in Munich, actually helped write that flyer and distribute it but was assumed to have been naively led astray by her boyfriend Hans. After serving time in prison she is now considered an outcast.

Now with all her family dead Franka lives alone in the family’s cabin in the Black Forest. She is devastated by the things that have happened to her family and the rumors of the terrible things happening to the Poles and the Jews. She sees no way forward for herself. She is planning to shoot herself out in the Black Forest with her father’s gun. It is the middle of winter and winter snows are deep on the ground, the cabin in a remote location, the roads closed due to the snow.

Her suicide is interrupted when she stumbles on a Luftwaffe officer attached to a parachute and unconscious, with two broken legs, who despite his extensive training speaks to her in English. This is where the story goes a bit off the rails. Some of the author’s explanations for what Franka does require a bit too much suspension of disbelief. Although the snow is a great device to buy her parachutist, John Lynch aka Werner Graf, time to heal.

What I did find relevant and worthy of attention were Franka’s interactions with her neighbors dished out in flashbacks to her years as a young girl when she joined the Hitler Youth movement, and with her earliest friends and her first boyfriend who shared these experiences with her. She eventually turned against Hitler and the Nazis, but her old beau, Daniel Berkel, became an agent of the Gestapo, became a loyal Nazi, and with promotions and power became quite a menacing figure.

Much is revealed about the role of women under Nazi rule which was defined by Hitler. Women were house frau’s and child bearers and kept an eye on their neighbors and reported their behavior when it seemed suspect. Women, unless single, did not work outside the home. However many German women became very good Nazi citizens and supported the regime in every way. Others obeyed because the penalties for not obeying were very steep, often even life-threatening.

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey is a very readable story, but not a polished literary novel. We do end up on the edge of our seats, and you might want to see if they are able to escape their very precarious situation.

From Wikipedia – “The White Rose (German: die Weiße Rose) was a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in the Third Reich led by a group of students and a professor at the University of Munich. The group conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign that called for active opposition to the Nazi party regime.”

You can also find me at:

https://thearmchairobserver.com

www.tremr.com as brissioni

Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

 

Fear by Bob Woodward – Book

Fear Washington Times

Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) recently published his exposé of the chaos in the early days of the Trump White House called simply, Fear: Trump in the White House.If you have been paying attention to the news (not Fox) then what you are reading in this book is hardly surprising. You see Steve Bannon come and go. The James Comey drama is in there. You see the contributions of people who played a role in those early days but are now gone, like Hope Hicks and Rob Porter. Tillerson and Trump disagree about foreign policy and Tillerson is replaced by Pompeo. Some of Trump’s fears about the Mueller investigation are covered.

There was a recent article in the NYT’s written by an anonymous source who told us that Trump’s West Wing staff are so worried about Trump’s orders telling them to design documents that will solidify bad policies, orders to place those documents on his desk to be signed, that they delay producing the papers and even remove the documents if they appear on Trump’s desk. They know that Trump’s mind jumps around from one idea to the next and that if the policy document is not placed in front of him he will forget about it (for a while). This is all covered in Woodward’s book. Woodward was there so it helps us feel like we are actually in the Oval Office, flies on the wall, experiencing staff fears in real time.

One of the greatest of all the fears is the one that shows us that someone who formed his policy ideas in some earlier decade, someone as inflexible as Trump, someone unwilling to learn about in-depth intelligence and to apply it to his fondly-held theories, someone unwilling to evolve, to revise old dogma, to encompass new data controls the nuclear codes. People in former administrations did not lightly make nuclear threats in hopes that going nuclear will turn enemies into friends. We don’t usually brag that our nuclear capabilities are greater than those of our enemies although we believe that it is basically understood. Nuclear boasting might backfire and the consequences could be devastating. Sometimes threatening documents, once produced, were removed from presidential proximity before he could sign them, but the fear that surrounds any casual treatment of nuclear weapons is always there.

Bob Woodward is not just making us aware that Trump’s staff lives in fear of Trump inadequacies and belligerent nature; he is telling us that we need to be fearful of a man who is filling a position he does not understand. We need to know that he is running America on ego, calcified opinions, and praise elicited by implied threats (fear). We need to follow Bob Woodward into those rooms in our nation’s White House and watch the slapdash way that business is now conducted daily in America. His account is very readable and the actual meat of the book ends well before the pages do. What follows is a section of photos, some pretty useful end notes, and a detailed index. If you have been paying attention to an in-depth news station like MSNBC it will all be very familiar. What will be different is that this time you are “in the room where it happens”.

The children in this Rainbow Room video offer revealing and very brief reviews of Bob Woodward’s book, reviews that sum things up very well.

https://mashable.com/video/stephen-colbert-reading-rainbow-woodward-trump/#FGlobArRcZqb

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Washington Times

How Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt – Book

 

How democracies die big Chicago Humanities FestivalSteven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote How Democracies Die. They were challenged to complete this book project by their agent Jill Kneerim. They did so with help from their student research assistants who are listed in the acknowledgments. It is a book that tries to analyze how much danger we are in of losing our democracy at this current moment in time. It begins with a story about Benito Mussolini and ends with references to the goings-on in the Trump/Republican administration, the 2016 primaries, and in the campaign of 2016. In the middle the authors look at a number of “political outsiders” who “came into power from the inside via elections or alliances with powerful political figures.” They take us through the rise of Adolf Hitler, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. They say, “in each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would containthe outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politicians. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making.”

Although the authors remind us that America has had no shortage of authoritarian personalities in politics we also, they explain, have had “gatekeepers”, first in the form of powerful men in smoke-filled rooms and later in the form of political parties, conventions and the electoral college which kept authoritarianism in check, possibly with the sacrifice of some of the “will of the people”. They go on to explain that the primary system opened elections up to “outsiders” who had not come up from the ranks of government. Two factors weakened the gatekeepers, one being the availability of outside money (Citizen’s United) and two being the “explosion of alternative media”. “It was like a game of Russian roulette: The chances of an extremist outsider capturing the presidential nomination were higher than ever before in history.”

There were signs as early as the primaries that Trump might represent dangers for our democratic government.

  1. He would not say whether he would accept the results of the election
  2. He denied the legitimacy of his opponents
  3. He show a tolerance for and encouragement of violence
  4. He exhibited a readiness to curtail civil liberties of rivals and critics

The authors tell us that “No other major presidential candidate in modern U.S. history, including Nixon, has demonstrated such a weak public commitment to constitutional rights and democratic norms.” They offer evidence for each point they make. They also say that Republicans closed ranks behind Trump and normalized the election results.

Throughout their interesting and well-researched book we are shown examples of instances when outsiders have gradually and, sometimes, almost invisibly, sometimes rather violently taken the reins of power from the “referees” such as the courts, or the congresses of government, bought off their opponents, subverted the media, and have ended up with absolute control, thus ending a democracy. We can see where the authors are headed. They want to warn us that our democracy also could die such a death, just sliding into authoritarianism one baby step at a time. Here we look at Erdogan in Turkey and the Orbán government in Hungary and many more.

“Even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy,” say the authors. Successful democracies rely on informal rules, they add. “Two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.” The rest of the book shows us how these two norms are no longer functioning or are being eroded. In the end they explore our possible futures under Trump, but even if he is not the one who destroys our democracy it seems as if it has never been more threatened and it is good time to have a blueprint of what cues we should look for. Knowing when to put on the brakes or when the brakes will no longer functions could be very important either in the near or the more distant future.

Although this book seems scholarly and is constructed according to academic principles it is very readable. The language is not at all obscure and the examples of other nations who have lost their democratic government to a dictatorial government are interesting with easy-to-draw parallels. How Democracies Die should, perhaps, be required reading given where we find ourselves right now in America. It is the very best kind of thriller, the real kind.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – Book

There are not many family sagas that are non-European but Min Jin Lee has added Pachinko to the genre. Sunja Baek is the Korean woman that we follow to Japan. Hooni and Yongji are her parents, poor Koreans who carve out a viable economic space for themselves in the years just before the Japanese come to occupy the Korean Peninsula (in 1910, prior to Europe’s first world war). Hooni is born with a hair lip and does not expect to marry, but he has strength and personality. Yongji is old enough as a single woman to believe she will never marry. Sunja is their only living daughter. She is no great beauty but she has the allure of youth and she is pursued with some patient skill by Koh Hansu, who only visits Korea, but actually lives in Japan. When she tells him she is pregnant he offers to support her but tells her he cannot marry her.

Sunja and her mother run a boarding house for fishermen which is popular because her mother is a great cook. Izak Baek comes to their boarding house very ill, having just arrived in their village on the ferry. He is a Christian minister, going to Japan to take up a post in his brother’s congregation. He most likely has consumption (TB to us) and is not strong. When he learns of Sunja’s pregnancy he asks her to marry him and come to Japan with him. Sunja is reluctant to go because Koh Hansu lives in the very city where they will go to live but she has few options.

Sunja has a son, named Noah and another son named Mozasu (after Moses). Christians are outlawed in Japan and Koreans are looked upon as dogs so the family lives in what is basically the Korean ghetto. Sunja’s husband Isak is arrested and thrown in jail for preaching Christianity. His health problems make this particularly punitive for him. By the time he gets out of jail he is in very bad shape indeed. According to this author, the Japanese do not feel any foreign people are fine enough to be accepted by the Japanese people. This is the same attitude, seven decades later, that Sunja’s grandson Solomon encounters when he returns from school in America to work in Japan.

Noah, Sunja and Izak’s first child,  is actually the son of Koh Hansu. Hansu climbs the power ladder in Japan, but as a yakuza, so he is considered a criminal type, like a member of a mafia. Noah does not know this man is his father. Noah is very bright and longs to go to college in Japan. Hansu makes sure Noah is able to do as he wishes but there are repercussions and, in a sense, Sunja pays for her sins. The second son meets a Korean mentor who runs several Pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a game similar to pinball but it also involves gambling, so our equivalent of a Pachinko parlor is a casino. Many owners are criminals but Mozasu’s mentor runs his businesses cleanly. Eventually this second son owns three Pachinko parlors of his own and the family no longer has to worry about money.

This book covers the generations of this family growing up in Japan between 1910 and 1989. These Korean people never become Japanese citizens because, in fact, even if an immigrant from Korea does become a naturalized citizen, Koreans must carry passports from South Korea. The family may be fictional but the events they live through are not. This follows the form we are used to in most family sagas.

Sunja lives with Izak’s brother Joseph and his wife and it is the lives of the two couples and their offspring that we follow for seven decades and through two world wars. This novel requires an investment in time but the history covered is new to most of us and interesting because of it.

I listened to this book on Audible as I was able to use a credit to read it in that format without cost. The narrator had a clear voice but she was so sweet she did not always seem appropriate in times when life got bitter for the family. There is also some graphic sex in the last section of the book which seemed odd when read in the same tone as the rest. The sexual scenes were there for a reason but were quite jarring juxtaposed against the rest of the content. Even when Sunja had her illicit relationship with Koh Hansu the encounters were not at all graphic (of course Sunja’s experiences were in 1910 and Hannah’s experiences were in the 1980’s). Still I think if this was used as a book club selection readers would need to be forewarned about what to expect. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a book that is growing on me now that I have finished reading it. It is vivid enough to be memorable but has a sort of sparseness that makes it better as history than as literature.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Book

 

In a book peopled by many ghosts and few living people George Saunders writes a thoughtful book that reminds me of one of those black and white photographs with only one spot of color. Perhaps a splash of bright red or saffron yellow.

Abe Lincoln (and Mary Todd Lincoln) lost their son Willie Lincoln in 1862, probably from typhoid fever. Willie was eleven. The Lincoln’s had planned a grand party to show off the new White House décor. No expense was spared and hundreds of important people had been invited. In such a situation, do you go ahead and have the party with your little son so sick upstairs? If you are the President you must and you do, even though you know some people will think you made the wrong choice. Given that the Civil War had already begun, people’s reactions to the party were bound to be emotional even if guests did not know about the illness of Lincoln’s son.

Thus begins Lincoln in the Bardo, the first full length novel by George Saunders. On the night of the party we are introduced to one of the unusual literary devices used in this amazing book, a book that breaks new ground for fiction. The author begins quoting from some of the many Lincoln books. Each quote describes the sky on the night of the party. The descriptions are not at all consistent. Some describe a clear night with a brilliant moon. Others say the night sky was cloudy and there was no moon. Some actually recall that it was a stormy night.

The narrator uses actual quotes and avoids footnotes by telling the source, title and author as part of the story. If an author is quoted again, we get a name and an “op cit”. There are a lot of “op cit-s” in this novel, adding a sense of authenticity. You might worry that this would be deadly as a device in a novel, but somehow it isn’t, and that is part of the genius of this unusual book.

Willie Lincoln, history tells us, does not recover. He dies so young. His father is distraught.

But what is “the Bardo”? The internet tells me that in some forms of Buddhism this describes an existence between life and death. Saunders puts quite a Christian spin on this, almost like purgatory. Once Willie is laid to rest in a crypt at the cemetery his little body/soul comes forth to join the many other souls who are clinging to what they know (as much as the sort of half-life in that place bears any similarity to real life) because their human failings make them afraid to “go on”.

The Bardo is full of souls, of all classes, and all genders, all ages, and many professions. Many alliances are formed in the Bardo. Three souls in particular are our guides to the Bardo in this particular cemetery. But there are no children here. Children usually “go on” right away. However, Lincoln and Willie are so fond of each other that Willie cannot bring himself to go, and Lincoln cannot bring himself to let go.

Do souls in limbo have feelings? Is there still some sense of good and bad in the Bardo? The shades are genuinely worried about the fact that Willie is staying for his father’s sake. Bad things happen to children who stay in the Bardo. What duty do the shades take on and how does that work out? The reader gets to think long and hard about the nature of death and the after effects of decisions we make in our lives, although the denizens of the Bardo never use any words that might make death seem real. We also get to think about what might have happened if Lincoln had given in to his grief and had been unable to govern well in the critical situation of that moment in time.

I listened to the book on Audible, read by an enormous cast of some pretty well known people. This made the Bardo “come alive”. (Sorry for the double meaning.) I have to caution that not everyone in the Bardo is “quite the thing” so some of the language and the deeds get too inappropriate for children, the folks at the gym, or the neighbors to hear, especially out of context. Headphones might be a good option.

This is a unique book offering several more breaks from “life” in the Bardo to quote from the abundant Lincoln literature with plenty of “op cit-s”. If you sometimes give up on fiction because it seems there may be no new stories to tell or no new ways to tell stories, George Saunders’ book Lincoln in the Bardo will make you question that notion. Saunders book is poignant and profound; thoughtful and thought-provoking.

This site gives a list of characters and also a list of the cast on the Audible version of this book.

http://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/lincolninthebardo

Artemis by Andy Weir – Book

 

Artemis by Andy Weir is the kind of book you want to read in one bite. It is just so much fun that the word yummy would apply if a book was a meal (which, in a way it is). Andy creates for us the small domed community of Artemis on the Moon. He describes it for us through the eyes of his irreverent narrator, Jas (Jasmine), whose Dad came to the Moon from Saudi Arabia when Jasmine was young. There are several domes, each named after the astronauts who first journeyed to the Moon. There are rich folks on the Moon who live in the nicest spaces in the nicest dome. There are poor folks who live in more crowded spaces in another dome. There are domes where businesses operate. Jasmine’s father is a skilled welder who owns a fairly large work space until Jas, in a teenaged misadventure, burns it down. Fire is one of the most feared elements in Artemis. There is nowhere to run to. Jas owes her father a lot.

Right now Jas has a pretty big chip on her shoulder, constructed of guilt, dumb gumption, immaturity, and ambition. We meet her when she is taking her test to qualify to lead groups of tourists in EVA’s (Extra Vehicular Activities) on the Moon’s surface. We see how her impatience to earn her own way and move out of the space that she is living in, which is described as a coffin, without a private bathroom, lead her to neglect a careful inspection of her EVA suit. She almost dies and, surprise, fails her test. Because her impatience makes her careless, people she has known since childhood are leery of trusting her with much responsibility. This doesn’t sound like fun, but Jas is telling the story and she is full of sarcastic humor and she is indomitable. She is unfazed by her screw-ups. She just resolves to push on to the next adventure.

Jas is not totally alone. She still can rely on her father who loves her, but she tries not to. She has had a longtime pen pal in Kenya. Kenya is in charge of Artemis, the KFC (irony, humor?) and most goods ship to Artemis from Kenya. Jas is a porter who delivers goods from shipments as they arrive. This is how she earns her meager living right now, along with a bit of smuggling. But Jaz wants to be rich. She wants to live in the best dome and have her own luxurious bathroom. So when Tran offers to pay Jas 1 million slugs (credits) to do something very destructive, for what seem to be very good reasons, the whole, almost-fatal comedy of Moony errors ensues. Jas does love Artemis and she loves her father and she enlists the help of some very reluctant friends who obviously care about her. In the end we guess that Jas will finally enter a somewhat calmer adult lifestyle and we learn that not all her ventures have been so convoluted as the one we enjoy in Artemis. She has actually found a niche in Artemis.

I bought a membership in Audible because I planned to start exercising and I wanted to be very efficient with my time. If I could read and exercise at the same time I would be one of those people who make every second of their life count. I am having a problem with Audible, though, because I cannot see the spelling of the character’s names. I don’t like to read any reviews before I write mine so you may see some very creative spelling from me sometimes. The Moon community is home to people from almost every nation on Earth and offers a real challenge to Rosario Dawson who reads the book to us (I can listen on my Alexa). There are lots of accents which help to differentiate characters and add character to whoever is speaking. After a while the accents sound too similar and some accents sound less authentic than others. Still Dawson’s reading is suited to the saga of Jas and Artemis and the accents add another layer of entertainment to this tale, which gives us a sort of Moon thriller, and a tutorial in space science. Science is not usually this much fun (except perhaps in The Big Bang Theory with its clever writers). Andy Weir also reminds us that our flawed human nature will go with us wherever we go.

Grant by Ron Chernow – Book

 

Grant by Ron Chernow is not a book; it is tome. He writes a very contemporary biography of Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unclouded by the political passions and machinations of the 19th century. We often hear more that is negative about Grant than what was positive. We hear he was often drunk, that he headed one of the most corrupt governments in our history, that he was a gullible and simple man, without social graces or persuasive public speaking abilities. Writers in the past accepted, for the most part, that Grant had strong military successes, but opinions of his abilities range from a lazy leader to a military savant (which Chernow feels is much closer to the truth).

Prior to the Civil War, America was experiencing a time of great divisiveness (perhaps even worse that what we are seeing in the 21st century). Slavery and state’s rights were the issues that most passionately divided the nation (and they still are 151 years later). Strong abolitionist movements in the northern states enraged the South whose lifestyle and economy revolved around slave labor. The South claimed that the Federal government had no right to make laws in this matter. The verbal battles were bitter and the differences irreconcilable. Whatever you may feel is the reason for the Civil War (the GOP still cites the state’s rights issue; while Dems tend to cite the issue of keeping human beings as slaves), Grant evolved on the issue of slavery until he came to believe that it was an anathema and absolutely the point of the war. The Union considered the South to be traitors who wanted to dissolve the Republic. Although it may drive you crazy, you need to remember that in the 19th century Southerners were the Democrats and the abolitionists were Republicans.

Chernow does not sidestep graphic descriptions of the terrible tragedy of human destruction left in the wake of every victory and every defeat in the brutal Civil War. Grant, who seemed unable to be a successful businessman, proved to have a genius for warfare, a focus that seemed to appear only when battle loomed, and a broad and long view of the overall geography, scope, and strategy involved in any given battle. Since Grant was educated at West Point, he knew many of the officers on both sides in the Civil War and he had personal insight into how they would behave. Try not to read about these battles while eating.

I can never cover all of the information imparted in this biography. It is minutely comprehensive and still, somehow, eminently readable. It is long but well worth the investment in time. What I appreciated most about Ron Chernow’s tome is the attention he gave to what happened in the South after the war. Perhaps Grant was too sympathetic to the officers and men when the war ended at Appomattox. He did nothing to humiliate them. He let them lay down their weapons and leave without persecution to go home to their land and families. But perhaps this allowed the South to keep too much of its pride and they secretly kept alive the resentments that had caused the rift to begin with. Chernow does not skirt the details of the ways Southern slave owners took out their anger on freed Americans of African Descent.

According to Chernow and his exhaustive research Ku Klux Klan activity was far more prevalent and deadly in those years of Reconstruction than represented in the stories we tell ourselves today (and in our school history classes). Current events teach us that those feelings kept alive in the South and imported to the North still inform our politics, and the feelings of white supremacy that seem to have been resurrected, but which never actually left us. Grant earned the lasting respect of black folks by sending troops to try to stop the carnage and the total unwillingness of slave owners to accept the freedom of their former slaves. He supported programs to educate former slaves and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed while he was President. Frederick Douglas remained a loyal acquaintance of Grant and expressed his gratitude again and again for the support Grant provided to back up freedom for all Americans. If Grant accomplished nothing else, what he accomplished in the arena of freedom and equality for formerly enslaved Americans should move him far above the rank he held until now in the pantheon of American presidents. He deplored the fact that Reconstruction did not end racial hatred in Southern whites.

Mr. Chernow does not buy the tales that make drunkenness a key trait in Grant’s life. He finds a pattern to Grant’s binges and gives him credit for fighting against the hold alcohol had for him when he was without the comforts of his family (as soldiers often are). He admits that Grant was connected to a number of corrupt schemes while he was President and later when he resided in NYC. But if you follow the money you find that Grant never was at all corrupt himself. He was guilty of being unable to see through people, especially when they were friends. Since many people had been his fellow soldiers he tended to give them credit for being loyal friends when they were actually involved in collecting payoffs in scams such as the whisky ring, and the Indian ring, and other scandals of the Gilded Age. Juicy, interesting, and deplorable stuff. Many government rules were different than they are today and corruption was easy if you valued money over morals. Probably a number of rules and protections in our current government were passed to fight the human impulse to corruption which exists, of course, to this day.

It’s a wonderful biography, well researched and full of quotes from primary sources and although it may put a crimp in your accounting of the number of books you get to read this year it will offer such in-depth quality that you will not mind the hit you take in terms of the quantity of books you get to read.