Friday, January 22, 2010

Germany 1945

Sometimes when I find myself preoccupied with minor worries or anxieties, I find distraction and relief in reading about larger, dramatic problems of historic magnitude, and how people organized and worked together to achieve important goals. I spent the end of 2009 engrossed in Germany 1945 by Richard Bessel, a thorough history of both the last six months of the war in Europe and the first six months of occupation and recovery.

As the year began, the Battle of the Bulge had concluded and the Allies were poised once again to invade the German homeland. The Allies had to contend with a Nazi regime determined to fight until annihilation. Strategy, tactics, and politics had to be worked out among the allies. The war still had to be fought, mile by mile, soldier by soldier, and from the perspective of the combatants and civilians, every day until surrender was dangerous, uncertain, and consequential.

Senior military and political leadership for each of the allies had to contend with winning a military victory and preparing for civilian occupation and control. Political and economic conditions in England, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union were very different and led to complicated agreements, compromises, deceptions, and tensions. The personalities, experiences, and views of the key actors - Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, Montgomery, etc. - were all factors in the eventual victory as were the actions of the ordinary people whose lives and actions shaped the outcome. Historical writing is effective for me when it demonstrates how individuals, under pressure and constraints, exercise leadership, persuasion, compromise, dedication, and hard work to achieve results. Bessel's book does that.

The second half of the year 1945, begins with an utterly defeated Germany occupied by the Allies. Millions of soldiers and civilians have been killed throughout Europe and hundreds of thousands of surviving German soldiers are in POW camps in both the West and the East. The major cities have been destroyed by months of bombardment. Death is present everywhere and corpses are a regular presence. There is no transportation infrastructure. No effective rail communications, no roads, no vehicles, no fuel. There is no communication infrastructure. No electricity, no telephone lines, no postal service. The population is made up of mostly women, children, and elderly. Slave laborers that performed the farming that soldiers couldn't do had been liberated to return to their origins, or not, and agricultural production dropped precipitously. As borders were redrawn, Germany immediately lost much land that had supplied its citizens with food. Germany's industrial capacity had been destroyed and what remained was subject to confiscation and removal to the Soviet Union as war reparations. What would the harvest of 1945 be like? How would people eat, and stay warm in the winter of 1945-46? Who would begin clearing mountains of rubble. Would cities be rebuilt? Would factories begin production of needed goods? How could people be reunited with family? What medical needs could be met and at what cost?

Beginning in May, 1945, the same governments and leaders who had been focused for years on winning a military victory were now faced with the immediate need to take control of this completely defeated and destroyed nation and help it survive and face the future. Even the general shape of that future was yet to be worked out. How an allied force designed to fight and win a war had to turn into an occupying power with the need to keep a nation from starvation and to set the foundations for future economic and political success is the stuff of the second half of Bessel's book.

These historic problems make many of today's problems seem small or at least manageable. It is not that economic recession, energy needs, global warming, or human migrations are easily solved. It it important, however, to remember how in the past, leaders with different outlooks and conflicting interests somehow worked together well enough so that people's lives could be restored, so that they could eat, and begin to work, and begin to rebuild housing, and eventually reenter the international community. Massive population migrations had to be engineered and managed. International financing required risk-taking, sacrifice, and a commitment to basic human values and rights while also looking out for national self-interests. Bessel's book lays out the challenges, identifies the needs, and relates how this one critical keystone year saw the end of a catastrophic war and the beginning of a peace that would eventually be called an economic miracle.

I intended to post this entry earlier, before the earthquake occurred in Haiti. That catastrophe, and the international response, and the historical, humanitarian, and political conversations that are now happening, have made me appreciate even more the importance of reading history. We must inform ourselves and allow ourselves to be inspired by those who preceded us. Others have faced what appeared to be overwhelming challenges. As I follow the news on Haiti, I am encouraged by the response I see reported through the media, and by the coverage of political, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts, large and small. Germany 1945, is ultimately very respectful of humanity and our capacity to heal, to build and to share, and reading it provides me with the same kind of encouragement and hope for the present and the future.

Note: Richard Bessel dedicates his book To the memory of my father, who was there. My own father was there as well, first as a combat infantryman helping to achieve the military victory that was so necessary and costly, and later as part of the occupying forces who witnessed the consequences of war, of political extremism, of racism and genocide, and contributed to the rebuilding of a nation, an economy, and a society. I thought of my father with every page of this book and missed him intensely as I wished I could share it with him and ask him, once again, what it looked like through his eyes.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Some "Bookwagon" readers have tried to make comments on the blog that I am not seeing. The only comments I currently see are from a small group of followers: Lady Z, Kathryn, and ezuroski. If you are not one of these people and have left a comment or two, please know that I do not see them. You must understand that I am new to all of the mechanics of blog production and management. (Lady Z, help me!) I have tried to set the controls so that you do not need to be a follower to comment but I won't know if that is working or not until I see a few more comments like that. So, if you have tried to comment, or would like to, you can also let me know by emailing me at and I will continue to take control of this book-filled vehicle careening down the information superhighway.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Omniscient Narrators

I am nearly finished with the 1200 pages of World Without End and it has been so engrossing that I haven't read much else to report on. I thought at one point that Follett had described one minor character as "ambitious" on one page and "not ambitious" on another page. Having come across this during some late night reading, I folded the pages to mark them and composed in my mind a blog about the responsibility of the omniscient narrator to remain consistent with his trusting readers. The blog reached draft form before I checked some details of my memory and by the clear light of day, it was very apparent that Follett was describing two different minor characters, one "ambitious" and the other "not ambitious". I erased my draft blog, grateful that I hadn't made a fool of myself. So much for the trusting reader. I still think that it is remarkable how willing we are to follow an omniscient narrator. After all, he/she knows everything that is happening and that will happen and we very generously allow the narrator to spin out details in a sequence that creates a story, complete with uncertainty and tension. What would happen if we readers demanded that omniscient narrators tell us everything they know right up front? Efficient and time-saving but it sure wouldn't be storytelling.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I enjoyed the new Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie very much. Must I apologize to those who feel that a literary icon has been abducted by the forces of popular culture? Should I explain why I am willing to allow a character who is so sharply evoked in Arthur Conan Doyle's narratives become an action figure on screen, akin to a video game character?

I enjoy movies that tell a good story, that establish empathy, that transport. The new Sherlock Holmes does all that. It ranks high among the hundreds of cinematic, television, and literary interpretations of Holmes and Watson over the years.

I have read somewhere that Doyle left much to the imagination with his characterization of Holmes and Watson. They are drawn with bold, clean lines so that you understand quickly what Holmes and Watson are like, but he leaves out so much detail about their background, their lives, and their thinking that he is practically inviting the reader (or movie director) to fill in the spaces, and to create characters that fit the reader's reality.

I am not steeped in Holmesian detail (as are the Baker Street Irrgulars), but I have enjoyed reading most of the stories and novels, the Basil Rathbone films, the Jeremy Brett version produced by Granada Televison in the UK, the Seven Percent Solution where Holmes meets Freud, and more recently, the series of Laurie King novels beginning with the Beekeepers Apprentice that feature a young woman detective, with prodigious intellectual strength, and more than a little derring-do, matched up with an older Holmes. (I recommend her novel The Game where she brings together Doyle and Kipling, Holmes and Kim) It seems there hasn't been a time since the stories were written when readers have committed themselves to delving into the Holmesian world as if it were real, as if Holmes were an historical detective and Watson his chronicler. Doyle himself invited this kind of attention by inserting the device into his stories of Holmes, and the society of Holmes, being aware of Watson's stories about Holmes.

Doyle had a complicated relationship with his famous creation and did try to kill him off only to resurrect him for continued stories. I don't know what the author would think of the many versions and interpretations that have now come down to us but perhaps, if he were asked, he would apply a test. Does the interpreted Holmes stay true to the combination of brilliance, dissatisfaction, boredom, addiction, rationality, and science that he bequeathed his creation? Forget the Meerschaum pipe, the deerstalker hat, and the "elementary my dear Watson", which I understand are not part of Doyle's stories. He would pay attention to Holmes tortured need for intense observation, analysis and action. Is the friendship between Watson and Holmes depicted with the intimacy and understanding that is shared between these two very different men. Holmes is never patronizing to Watson even as he points out basic observations and conclusions that Watson doesn't see on his own. Watson completes Holmes in many ways, and Holmes does the same for Watson. They do rely on each other. Is that conveyed in any given interpretation?

By these standards, and others, Ritchie's movie succeeds. Yes, Robert Downey's Holmes here is an action hero, skilled in martial arts, and capable of physical feats of a gymnast. Yes, he is shorter and probably more fit than Doyles' Holmes. (Note, even Doyles' Holmes had been a boxer in his younger days.) Downey was a brilliant casting choice. His personal history and problems reflect a Holmesian combination of brilliance, addiction, and intensity. Jude Law's Watson is not befuddled by Holmes and serves as a perfect sidekick for dangerous adventures. He is also good looking, dashing, and physically adept as well. Ritchie doesn't have Holmes explaining in words to how he has come to certain conclusions or why he is taking certain actions. Ritchie instead uses cinema to convey Holmes' thinking process through a series of fast-action images that effectively suggest Holmes' superpower of deduction. His Holmes is complicated and troubled, and in one scene it is made clear how painful Holmes' ultra-awareness of his surroundings can be to him.

I like the movie. I like the stories, and novellas. I like many of the novels that interpret Holmes and Watson for us. I like the old movies and the more recent ones. I like these when they recreate an atmosphere that I have imagined since reading these stories as a boy, when they provide depth to the original characters, when they sketch out details that fit my imagination of the Holmesian world, when they inspire me to reflect on the nature of observation, deduction and analysis, friendship, and the intricacies of social relationships. Guy Ritchie's movie is a welcome addition to the oeuvre. It does not replace the stories which I have read and re-read over years. It does not detract from them, or devalue them. It simply is a new, and exciting, and pleasing rendering of a Holmesian legacy that was created and passed down to us by Arthur Conan Doyle. Thank you, Sir Arthur!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nursery Crimes

Jasper Fforde writes novels that, as he said last night at a reading at the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble, "get into your head and play with your mind." His two series, the Thursday Next novels, and the Nursery Crimes series, are nearly impossible to describe, at least in a paragraph or two. (He said as much last night, excusing me from the challenge of describing his work here in writing. Actually, he said, "if you can describe my books in a sentence, then you haven't really got it, have you?") It helps to refer to Lewis Carroll, Douglas Adams, and Dashiell Hammett in attempting to communicate what his books are like.

His stories are a rich mixture of alternative history, surrealism, zaniness, classic, academic and popular literature, detective fiction,geography, popular culture, logic, illogic and wordplay. In the Thursday Next series, his protagonist is a detective who has to physically enter into works of fiction to prevent bad guys from nefarious deeds that require the manipulation of well-known plots and characters. In the Nursery Crimes series, a detective agency is responsible for solving murders and mysteries that take place in the world of well-known Mother Goose nursery rhymes. I am almost finished with The Big Over Easy where detectives Jack Spratt and Mary Mary (who is very professional despite her inability to resist being contrary) are following up on the mysterious doings around Humpty Dumpty's fall. Was it murder and if so, who would have motive and means to do in this popular egg who has left a mysterious trail of lovers, stock manipulations, and other questionable dealings behind?

To dip into Fforde's work, start with The Eyre Affair, his first published book, where his heroine, Thursday Next (that's her name, not an appointment) is introduced. The success of that book propelled him to continue the Thursday Next stories and then, at his publisher's request, to resurrect the Nursery Crimes books that he had written earlier and had failed to get published. I have seen him speak twice and his directness and honesty about himself, his writing and his books don't detract from the same playfulness, wit, and verbal antics that make his books so much fun. He also spoke about Lewis Carroll last night and urged us all to read the chapter about the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass. I intend to do that, perhaps this evening.