‘A Boy in Winter’ by Rachel Seiffert – A Brutal Nazi Atrocity in Ukraine During World War II

 

‘A Boy in Winter’ by Rachel Seiffert  (2017) – 242 pages

In Rachel Seiffert’s incisive new novel ‘A Boy in Winter’, Otto Pohl is a German engineer who considers the Nazis’ brutal war across Europe as criminal.  To avoid being complicit in the Nazis’ crimes, Pohl signs up to lead a road-building team in the Ukraine.  Originally he thinks he might be doing a positive thing, building a new road “for when the war is over, for when Hitler loses as he surely must”, but he comes to realize the evil purpose for which the Nazis will use the road.    He witnesses the Nazi SS storm through a small Ukrainian village and then round up all the town’s Jewish people herding them into an old brick factory.  Pohl then understands the truth about these SS Nazis.

“They do not think on a human scale. They do not think they deal with humans.”

At one point Pohl is given an opportunity to select workers for his team from among the imprisoned Jews.  He see only “shopkeepers and clerks, schoolteachers; respectable and indoor people in suits and spectacles”.  He sees that these people are clearly unsuited for the arduous work of roadbuilding, so he selects none of them.  Only after does he realize that he could have saved a few from a horrible death.

Later he witnesses the mass murder of hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazis.  The estimate is that the Nazis killed close to a million Jewish people in Ukraine alone.

Rachel Seiffert has mentioned that the character of Otto Pohl is based on a real person, Willi Ahren, who hoped to avoid complicity in Nazi atrocities by transferring to the road construction corps.  Seiffert herself is the granddaughter of a Nazi doctor in the SS.  She regards her grandfather’s conduct “with a lot of sadness”.

“It’s very sobering because he’s a person to me and it’s people who do this. I can’t externalise it. I can’t say it happened over there and it was done by other people. It was very close to home. It means I’m very much aware of human capacity for that kind of cruelty. World War II is unfinished business for me.  I think it always will be.” – Rachel Seiffert

It is crucial for people to continue to confront the Nazi atrocities during World War II because otherwise the atrocities are bound to be repeated.  ‘A Boy in Winter’ would make a great movie just as Seiffert’s previous novel ‘The Dark Room’ was turned into the movie ‘Lore’.

 

Grade :   A

 

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‘Imagine Wanting Only This’ by Kristen Radtke – Everything is Only Temporary

 

‘Imagine Wanting Only This’, a graphic memoir by Kristen Radtke   (2017) – 277 pages

The event that drives this graphic memoir ‘Imagine Wanting Only This’ is the early sudden death of the narrator’s beloved favorite Uncle Dan when she was a young girl. Later she discovers that she may also have the congenital heart condition that took her Uncle Dan. From then on, she is consumed with the impermanence of life and everything else and devotes much of her energy to studying it.  Not only lives are temporary but also buildings that go to ruins and even relationships which end. .  At one point Radtke writes that she’s “consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.”

Radtke’s approach is somewhat scattered with her taking incidents from around the world as part of her obsession with temporariness.  One incident she dwells on is the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 in her and my home state of Wisconsin which took more than 1200 lives.  Her travels take her to an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana to a village in Iceland decimated by a volcano to a deserted military base in the Philippines.

The graphics in this book are interesting throughout.  One quality is the many varied drawings throughout this graphic memoir.  However there is such a thing as being too earnest. The subject here – impermanence – is so deep it begs for a lighter approach.  More humor and lightness in the drawings would have helped.

 I do have one quibble. When Radtke portrays a TV news program about an abandoned Detroit neighborhood, she shows a scene from Fox News.  It is difficult not to deride anything associated with this propaganda network, and that detracts from the gravity of Radtke’s theme.

I don’t believe I have read any graphic book with a theme as serious as this one unless it was Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust or ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi about the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  However both of these other authors found ways to lighten their stories.  There is nothing lightening the melancholy mood in ‘Imagine Wanting Only This’ which takes itself somewhat too seriously.

I found Radtke’s approach to her subject just too diffuse and though she attempts to reach a unifying theme she does not quite succeed.  With her scattered approach, Radtke does not achieve the depth that her big subject of impermanence warrants.

 

Grade :    B –

 

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty – Drowning in a Sea of Mundanity

 

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty    (2017) – 243 pages

I have read nearly all of the fiction of Bernard MacLaverty, and in each of his other novels and stories I was ultimately touched by the plights of his characters.  MacLaverty is known as a master of the quotidian and his quiet work has had a strong effect on me in the past.   However while reading his latest work, ‘Midwinter Break’, I constantly felt like I was drowning in a sea of mundanity, and I never did feel the poignancy I was supposed to feel for these characters.

In ‘Midwinter Break’, we have an old couple Gerry and Stella.  He is a retired architect, she is a housewife. He has a drinking problem; she is a devout Catholic.  Gerry is constantly sneaking drinks of Jameson behind Stella’s back. Even at this late stage after being married for several decades, Stella is still considering leaving Gerry.  She wants to join a group that is like a convent, however does not require vows of poverty or chastity.

Gerry and Stella are taking a short winter vacation in Amsterdam, and that is where most of the novel takes place.

Everything about this old couple is relentlessly ordinary.  I almost feel it is unfair to quote the dialogue here but I must to give you an idea of what you will encounter if you read this novel.

“What’s that?” said Gerry.

“Styling mousse.”

“And what’s that supposed to do?”

“It adds body to my – sadly – limp hair.”

“I wonder would it do anything for me,” Gerry said. 

“Volumising hold, as the can says.  Have you never seen me do this before?”

“Not that I remember.”

“At home I do all this in the bathroom.” 

There are pages and pages of this not exactly scintillating conversation about pigeons, flowers, coffee, etc., between Gerry and Stella.   I believe this story of Gerry and Stella would have worked much better as a short story rather than a novel.  That way MacLaverty could have given us the impression of the ordinariness of their lives without delivering us the full load.

There is one event that happened to Stella when she was pregnant many years ago that seems almost preposterous given the boredom of their current lives, but I suppose anything can happen to anyone at any time.

I must consider ‘Midwinter Break’ a disappointment, but Bernard MacLaverty is still in my pantheon of great writers due to his previous profound and moving work.

.

Grade :    C

 

‘Beautiful Animals’ by Lawrence Osborne – A Dazzling Dreadful Summer on a Greek Island

 

‘Beautiful Animals’ by Lawrence Osborne   (2017) – 287 pages

“A summer was just a summer, and its dead bodies should remain confined to it.”

Two young women, Naomi and Amy, develop a friendship over summer while their families stay on the Greek island of Hydra. The Greece debt crisis is a tragedy for the Greek people as they must now live in austere circumstances.  However there are still all of these obscenely rich families from around the world including England and the United States who stay at their villas on the Greek islands to spend their dazzling summer vacations going to stylish restaurants and tavernas and private parties and perhaps swimming in the sea at some secluded spot.

The summer intensifies for Naomi and Amy when they discover a young man, Faoud, escaped from Syria and washed up on shore in one of these secluded spots.

“To save another person: it wasn’t nothing … it was a small shift in the balance of power towards the weak.”

What could be more romantic for these two young women than saving this young good-looking Muslim guy who speaks correct English and needs their help?

“His misfortunes made him charismatic,” Naomi thinks, “and therefore arousing.”

Naomi comes up with a so-called “plan”.   However events tumble out of control as they tend to do.  Later the action switches from Greece to Italy.

In dealing with these international situations of intrigue, Lawrence Osborne comes about as close as any modern writer to Graham Greene.   Osborne’s writing doesn’t quite have the quirky charm of Graham Greene but his efficient prose does speed you along and makes for compulsive reading.  David Sexton in the Evening Standard has described Lawrence Osborne as “pitilessly good” and said that comparisons with Graham Greene “aren’t even flattering anymore”.   I would not quite go that far as I have read over a dozen Graham Greene novels and consider Greene the gold standard in international intrigue novels.  However Lawrence Osborne is among the best of the English writers today carrying on that noble travel tradition of Graham Greene.

“There is nothing more exasperating than reading in contemporary guidebooks disparagements of places that are deemed to be “seedy.” Do the writers not notice that such places are invariably crowded with people? When a neighborhood is described as “seedy” by some Lonely Planet prude, I immediately head there.” – Lawrence Osborne

 

Grade :   A-

 

‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud – A Close Childhood Friendship Goes Awry

‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud   (2017) – 247 pages

“Nobody particularly wants the happy ending when they care more for the story than the person.”

‘The Burning Girl’ is about two close friends in an early childhood friendship who move apart when they get to be around twelve years old.  This does happen in real life to both boys and girls.  Our early friendships are based more on proximity rather than shared interests or values.  It is not at all rare for a twelve year old to discover that they have little in common with even their best friend until then.  That does not mean that their friendship wasn’t entirely valid up until that point.

Several scenes early in the novel depict the closeness of these two young friends Julia and Cassie who live in the small town of Royston, Massachusetts. These scenes at an animal shelter, at a quarry, and at a defunct mental asylum showing the closeness of these two girls are well-done.

However in the seventh grade they start moving apart and in different circles.  Their separation is exasperated because Cassie gets a new stepfather whom she hates.

One criticism that keeps popping up in the reviews for ‘The Burning Girl’ is that the voice of the narrator is much too articulate for a twelve year old girl.  I don’t consider this criticism entirely valid, because I picture the narrator as Julia when she is fully grown up looking back on her childhood.  Thus it is not like Tom Sawyer where it is the kid telling the story.

Toward the end of the novel Messud uses the word “inchoate”.  Now “inchoate” is a word I cannot imagine any young person using.  In fact I had to look up that word myself. But with the narrator speaking as an adult I suppose the use of the word is entirely valid. Quick, give me the definition of “inchoate”.

So we have these two young girls who were the best of friends.  However when they reach adolescence, Cassie no longer wants to be friends.  Then from Julia’s perspective, we see Cassie’s family life and social life deteriorate.  We and Julia are standing on the sidelines watching Cassie’s life fall apart.  I do believe it would have been more substantial if we also saw more of Julia’s own struggles with adolescence.  As it is the story seems a little one-sided.

 

Grade :   B

‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug – Original Comical Takes on the Relations Between Men and Women

‘Knots’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug   (2012) – 164 pages             Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson

In ‘Knots’, there are 26 stories in the 164 pages which works out to an average of slightly over 6 pages per story.  I don’t need to tell you that reading ‘Knots’ is a vastly different experience from reading a 600 page novel. In ‘Knots’ we have 26 separate narratives, 26 groups of characters, and 26 different plots. And each story is quite different from the rest and by no means simple or easy to understand.  I had to read each story twice in order to fully comprehend each story, so ‘Knots’ is by no means an easy read.  However it is a fascinating read.

One must get into the spirit of each of these stories in order to get it.   A reader must expend a certain effort to fully appreciate each of these very short stories but in most cases it is well worth the effort.  One thing that stands out is the wide variety with each story vastly different from the others.  Apparently there is nothing that Øyehaug won’t try for a story.  These are not your standard issue stories by any means.  Many of the stories allude to literary figures, and they all have a distinctly Norwegian flavor.

Gunnhild Øyehaug puts her characters in comic risqué situations with a lot of humor and from a quirky woman’s point of view. The really short stories of one to four pages are cartoonish in the good sense of the word.  They are rude and sometimes crude. The longer stories are more fully developed.

In the story ‘Small Knots’, a mother gives birth to a son, a perfectly fine son.  There is just one problem.  The umbilical cord between mother and son cannot be cut by any means.  They lead as normal a life as possible, given this constraint.

In ‘Echo’ a young man Bjarte Bo idolizes another young guy Arild that he works with who is “a demon at selling encyclopedias” and thus a “success in its purest and rawest form”.  The one area where Bjarte Bo has the better of Arild is Bjarte’s girlfriend Tone.  Then Arild invites Bjarte and his girlfriend Tone to dinner at Arild’s apartment.  First Bjarte admires Arild’s Italian car which is sitting outside with an appreciative, “Damn”, and Tone responds by quoting Joyce.  This quote goes over Bjarte’s head as literary quotes are “something he didn’t know and didn’t care he didn’t know”.  Later during the dinner conversation Arild mentions that “Poetry was like the glow of a flame under glass”.  This remark resonates with Tone and soon Arild’s left hand “stole up the long split of her dress and she was more conscious of her body than she had been for a long time”.  There the story ends.

My favorite story is probably the last one, ‘Two by Two’, which is about a wife waiting for her husband to get back from a romantic tryst with his girlfriend on a snowy evening.  The wife’s attitude alternates depending on whether she is reflecting on Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes.

Gunnhild Øyehaug is an original force as a writer.

 

 

Grade :   A

 

More Fiction Writers Who Were Too Good to be Forgotten

Last June I wrote an article about six less well-known fiction writers who wrote some mighty fine fiction.  However there are others who I would like to mention who were just too good to be forgotten, so here is a second list.

 

Sybille Bedford – She is considered an English writer, but she was originally from Germany and lived for a time in France and the United States.  With the help of Aldous Huxley and his wife and a sham marriage, she was able to escape France before Hitler got there.  She wrote non-fiction travel writings as well as four novels of which I have read all of them.  Perhaps she is most famous for ‘A Legacy’ and ‘Jigsaw – An Unsentimental Education’.   I have no doubts that Bedford will still be read a hundred years from now.

 

 

 

 

Nelson Algren – He wrote of the “drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums” mostly in his hometown of Chicago.  He still is a controversial figure. He was the first major American figure to speak out against Joe McCarthy.  Algren did have his sensitive side; he had a long relationship with famous feminist Simone de Beauvoir and is portrayed in Beauvoir’s novel ‘The Mandarins’.  He wrote of the wild gritty side of life with a tough honesty. The three novels of his that stand out for me are ‘Never Come Morning’, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’, and ‘A Walk on the Wild Side’.

 

 

Maeve Brennan – She was the Long-Winded Lady at the New Yorker from 1954 to 1968 and made sardonic observations about New York City life.  After that she was in and out of institutions treating her for mental illness and alcoholism.  Thus she does not have a long bibliography.   Her book of short stories ‘The Springs of Affection’ and short novel ‘The Visitor’ are both fine works.

“Many men and women found Maeve charming, and she was a true friend, but there wasn’t much you could do to save her from herself.” – William Maxwell

 

 

 

 

Karin Boye –  I have only read one novel by Karin Boye, ‘Kallocain’ , but that one novel is good enough so that she still deserves to be on this list.  ‘Kallocain’  is a dystopian novel about a drug that detects individual acts and thoughts of rebellion.  A drab totalitarian state results from the wholesale use of the drug.  ‘Kallocain’ was one of the inspirations for Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.  Karin Boye committed suicide in 1941 at the age of 40.

 

 

 

 

 

Sandor Marai – He wrote in his native Hungarian, and he was not translated into English until the 1990s after he died. During his lifetime he managed to infuriate both the Nazis and the Communists, no small feat. ‘Embers’, his novel written in 1942, is his most justly famous.

“Elegiac, sombre, musical, and gripping, Embers is a brilliant disquisition on friendship, one of the most ambitious in literature.” – Anna Shapiro

 

 

 

 

Manuel Puig – He was born in Argentina in “a little town in the Pampas” but was exiled from Argentina for most of his life due to political reasons.  He was much influenced by old Hollywood movies of the 1930s and the 1940s, and one of his novels, ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’, was made into a successful movie as well as a play.  Other novels by Puig that I really like are ‘Betrayed by Rita Hayworth’ and ‘Heartbreak Tango’.

“I write novels because there is something I don’t understand in reality.” – Manuel Puig

 

 

 

 

 

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