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

 

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.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – Book

Celeste Ng writes about families. In her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, one of her characters, the family’s oldest child Lydia, who is found dead in a lake, takes us on an exploration of the dynamics in her mixed race (white mom “Oriental” dad) family. In her second book, Little Fires Everywhere Ng introduces us to two modern families, one that may look like a classic nuclear family (except for the fact that their house is on fire), and another that looks like anything but. In this second book we focus, in flashback, on Elena Richardson, her husband and their four children (Lexi, Tripp, Moody and Izzy). Elena is a mom who never realized her dream to be a famous journalist, a mom who may think that she limited her future by settling down and putting her family first and her journalistic goals second. But it is quite possible that it is her inability to untie herself geographically from the Shaker Heights neighborhood into which she was born (where the author also was born) that kept her in a position on the local paper instead of in a big city news room. Elena loves Shaker Heights because it is a neighborhood founded on principles of security and stability and community involvement that she finds comforting.

Elena is not a real hands-on mom, but her sort of distracted style seems to suit her first two children, at least until the decisions of puberty begin to challenge their judgment. Her style does not suit her two younger children quite as well, and, in fact, put her at odds with her youngest daughter Izzy, an impulsive and creative child who needs affection and approval, as opposed to the disapproval and dismissal she experiences from her mom. Izzy does not take her mom’s tempers and slights quietly as her brother Moody does; she acts out to make sure she gets attention, even if that attention is mostly negative.

When Mia Warren enters the lives of this geographically planted family she brings with her a whiff of a sort of gypsy existence, and she brings her daughter, Pearl, the fortunate recipient of her seemingly effortless warmth and affection. Elena hires Mia to help in the morning and cook dinners in the evening, and Elena’s children bask in the parental interest exhibited by Mia, while Pearl longs for the geographical stability of the Richardson family. Mia and Pearl have moved too many times, but this time Mia promised Pearl she would stay put. Eventually Elena becomes jealous of the attractions between her children and Mia. She sees a clue in a photograph in a museum, a photo of Mia with a baby and she uses journalistic research techniques, and resources she has not needed for years, to investigate Mia and to expose her secrets. Why does Mia seem to have no roots – a burning question to a woman to whom roots have seemed all important? Is Mia someone who could be a danger to Elena’s children?

We, as readers, also understand that Mia has a secret in her past and that even Pearl does not know what that secret is. We find Mia likeable but we don’t totally trust our judgment which is based on too little information. We don’t think her secret could be anything terribly bad, but we don’t know. Elena Richardson earns our censure for invading Mia’s life and our gratitude because she unlocks the secrets that Mia guards so carefully. Mia also gave up what could have been a successful career for her daughter but until we get the facts we are not sure why. (Can’t tell you.)

There is another story within this story about an Asian immigrant mom, befriended by Mia, who loses her job just after the birth of her baby. Since the father has bowed out of the relationship the mom, Bebe Chow, finds she cannot care for her baby. She leaves her at the local fire station. The baby is subsequently given to a long-time childless couple, friends of Elena Richardson and her husband. When Bebe gets a new job, she tries to get her child back and finds she must fight this affluent and loving couple in court. (Interesting note about Audible, it encourages creative spelling of characters’ names.)

We are asked to think about what makes someone a parent. Is blood stronger than any other bond? Are children ever born to the wrong parents? Should children sometimes get to pick their own parents? We see the supportive relationship that has developed between Mia and Izzy. What happens in this relationship is one event in this book that raises many questions in our minds and hearts, but I would spoil the book for you if I discussed it here. (Moody’s role in the family is another matter that we continue to contemplate after finishing Ng’s book.) I did find that I liked Celeste Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, better than her first one.

 

 

Column of Fire by Ken Follett – Book

Column of Fire by Ken Follett is the third book in the Kingsbridge Series and my least favorite of the three. It’s not that it was difficult or did not tell a story. It was not so terrible that it made me set it aside or stop reading. I liked the fictional characters placed among the actual historical figures enough to wonder what would happen to them but I did not feel strongly invested in them. I always realized they were fictional and there to involve the reader in the events occurring in the mid 1500’s and beyond in England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Religion was the key issue of these times after the declarations of Martin Luther and the beginnings of a Protestant movement that was growing and alarming Catholics. Protestants thought they could talk directly to God without a priest as intermediary. They published Bibles in national languages, rather than Latin, so people could read the Bible by themselves or in church services. They did not feel any allegiance to the Pope in Rome. Catholics saw Protestants as heretics and felt it their religious duty to crush them and their interpretation of Christianity. As Column of Fire begins Protestants are hunted by Catholics, considered criminals by royals, and must practice their religion in secrecy. But this book also covers the pivotal moment when events, especially in England, turned this dynamic around. By the end of the story Catholics are on the defensive and, at least in England, Protestants can worship without fear.

Since England had recently lost Queen Mary Tudor, a strongly Catholic queen, there were two women who could possible take the throne, Elizabeth Tudor, tolerant of Protestantism, and Mary Queen of Scots, strongly Catholic. The story of how Elizabeth took the throne and how she held it against Catholic sympathizers who stood to lose both their brand of religion and lots of power and money has fascinated readers for centuries. Elizabeth held her throne with the help of talented spies and one of these spies was William Cecil.

Ned Willard becomes one of Cecil’s spies, moving in and out of France, with family in Spain for a while (Barney Willard), who later becomes a shipper and a ship’s captain adding more clout to Ned Willard’s information network. There is a villain, in fact there are two and they are just about as hateful as you would like them to be. Pierre Armande de Guise is an ambitious, soulless creature who uses information he steals through his first wife Sylvie Palot, a list of important Protestants in Paris, to ingratiate himself with the de Guise family and to realize his life time ambition of being a royal (however tangentially). Rollo Fitzgerald, brother of Ned’s first love Margery trains a group of sinister priests and hides them in English households for when Mary Queen of Scots takes the throne from Elizabeth, and an invasion plan is afoot.

Even with the historical drama of this critical time in Europe the book never really taps into that drama. Women are expendable and are damaged by the villains but few men are and there is just little tension and fright in most of the telling of this story. Fortunes do switch from the Catholic Fitzgeralds to the Protestant Willards but Ned is never in any real danger and seems more like a nice guy than a spy. So, what we get in Column of Fire by Ken Follett is a good story, but not a great story.

The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro – Book

I almost didn’t read The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro because it sounded childish and so I put it on my list of books-to-read, but it was a ways down. Then Ishiguro won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and I moved the book to the top of my list. I discovered that this is no child’s book, although it is a fantasy that reads a bit like a fairy tale, but more in the old Grimm’s brother’s mode than in the newer spirit of the culturally appropriate versions we tell our children these days.

There is a giant buried under Briton but no one remembers it’s there because a mist or spell has made people forget their past almost as soon as they have lived it. The Saxons live in complexes of interconnected caves and we find Axl and Beatrice in a cave, a lonely cave, set at the very end of such a series of caves. As punishment, perhaps for being elderly, they are no longer allowed to have a candle to get them through the long, dark night. In a snatch of memory that comes and goes they remember that they have a son and they think they remember that he went south to a new village. Perhaps the mist is getting less dense and that is why these thoughts slip through.

Beatrice and Axl seem a lovely, devoted couple. They hold hands. Axl hugs her quite a lot. He addresses her as Princess (does it seem after a while to resemble the “yes dear” uttered by some modern husbands?) Beatrice and Axl have talked many times about leaving their village and going to their son. On this particular occasion they finally make their departure. Beatrice has a pain in her side that will not go away but she keeps up with her husband. On their journey they also hope to find out what causes this infernal mist on their minds. They decide to take a longer route in order to consult some wise people about Beatrice’s pain and as a result they meet some surprisingly interesting people, and they become part of some very significant events.

But memory is not always as sweet as we think it will be. Sometimes, perhaps what is buried should remain buried. The giant that has been buried is all of the animosity that survived the invasion of the Britons into the Saxon lands. And the mist makes sure that these things stay buried. How do Beatrice and Axl come to learn of this? How does their journey turn into a quest? The Britons had an enlightened leader. He tried to stop his men from raping and pillaging, but battles release chemicals that leave men wanting rewards for their victories and the toll on the Saxons is as terrible as the toll in any war when the victors help themselves to the “spoils” of war.

Are there parallels in this for our times? I see some in the Pandora’s Box of ancient hatreds that were harbored in the hearts of various cultural/religious groups in Iraq and kept in check only by a ruler who used threats and tortures to keep these groups from each other’s throats. I see this in our own country which has buried the victory of the anti-slavery forces in order to keep our nation whole, an act which allowed the losers to act like the victors for far too long at the expense of Americans of African Descent and our future unity. This has implications for those who like to say that the Holocaust never happened.

While forgetting may keep the peace for a while the costs of forgetting may be great and the repercussions different than could ever be imagined. Forget or remember – is either a good choice as long as there is hate and war and “the other”? Now I don’t know if these parallels were all intended by Ishiguro in his book The Buried Giant, or if you will interpret the tale in similar ways, but the story is following me around like a bit of a nag and asking me to think about it some more, and that is a good thing.