Archive for September, 2015

The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich : A History Of Nazi Germany / Wiliam L. Shirer

This is not a book someone picks up lightly. Textbook sized and well over a thousand pages in length, it is truly a hefty tome. Published in 1950, it was one of the first books to seriously examine the history of the Nazi Party. While it touches upon the numerous people who contributed to the party’s rise, and its ultimate destruction, it rarely strays from one individual: Adolf Hitler.

Mining original sources—captured secret German documents—Shirer fills these pages with the recorded transcripts that provide the reader with Hitler’s own thoughts and actions. The author is no historian. A newspaper correspondent by trade, he spent five years in Germany in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II. In that role, he had the unique opportunity to interact with the top members of the Nazi leadership.

While a good writer, at times he seems overwhelmed by the scope of the project he has taken on here. Occasionally, he falls back on simply inundating the reader with facts and figures, forgoing literary flourishes that could have made his prose more compelling. However, what makes this book worth diving into is his “you are there” approach of taking the reader into the private rooms where Hitler and other Nazi members debate and formulate their quest to dominate the fate of western Europe and the countries to the east of Germany.

For me, the most interesting part of the book is the first half, which describes the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and its early success in expanding the country’s boundaries. Hitler masterfully cows Britain and France and plays upon their unwillingness to get involved in another war. Shirer’s intent is not to give a detailed history of the events that lead to the outbreak of war, nor is it to describe the fighting that took place during its course. Throughout, his focus is on the actions of Hitler himself, and of those carrying out his direct orders. Surprisingly, Hitler does not come off as a reckless madman in these pages. Despite his ruthlessness, the captured German documents show he was an intelligent person who craftily manipulated others to further his aims. Only after 1941, having achieved total power, does he succumb to megalomania.

Shirer is clearly biased in this history. His strong distaste for Hitler and the “yes men” surrounding him comes across loud and clear. That is easy to understand when he recounts the brutal actions the party engages in following the Nazis’ rise to power. He does spend a good amount of time describing the German army leadership’s feeble attempt to overthrow Hitler after the war’s outbreak. Shirer believes that the main reason they failed to act until late in the war is that most of the officers were willing to turn a blind eye as long as the German army was winning on the battlefield.

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party was neither a socialist organization nor concerned with workers’ rights. Instead, fueled by anti-Semitic rhetoric and grievances over Germany’s treatment following the First World War, a small band of zealots, led by a charismatic leader, used a repressive regime to come close to dominating Europe, both east and west. This book has lessons still worth heeding in today’s war-torn landscape. For those wanting a more personal account of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, I highly recommend another book by Shirer, Berlin Diary.

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The Dream

Well, to start with, we were walking with friends.
Don’t ask me who; I’ve already forgotten.
But then, I find myself pedaling my old three-speed,
Sgt. Pepper. Not only that, I’m racing
against men more than half my age, going so fast
that everything is blurred. Whether ahead
or behind the pack doesn’t matter, the contest is
against decrepitude itself. I sense it
drafting behind me, a presence I cannot escape.
The other cyclists look like Halloween in
their logoed jerseys. My costume is street clothes.
No matter, the rest of me is feet, breath
and bike. Undeterred by curves, hills, or wind,
I’m twenty again. Passing the milestone,
the fear of that ghost behind me has evaporated.
Victorious, I sag back into my tired body.
Alive, I cherish every mile the years have put on.
And there you are again, by my side as
we enter a bar to meet our friends. No, I still
don’t remember their names. Besides,
we never reach their table. Suddenly, a cousin
I haven’t seen since childhood throws
himself at our feet. Heartbroken, he weeps and
flails, claiming his life is over
now that love has deserted him. Bending down,
angrily, I call him a fool. Surely he
must understand the gift each day presents us.
Then it occurs to me he is a specter, too.
Dead of cancer, he never did reach age thirty.

I woke to the sound of distant sirens.
Chilled, I’d kicked off every blanket pedaling.

Pilgrimage

Side by side
we walk with separate thoughts

Porous clouds
sift diffuse sunlight

It’s said
the inner ear is a labyrinth

Lord knows
so too this day’s muddled grays

Eager eyes
pan the scene and winnow

But a rent
presents a moment of clarity

A shaft
of light is language simplified

Silence isn’t
the intent of our pilgrimage

Even so
why interrupt the wind

We learn
while understanding nothing

Splash

Round as a shiny quarter,
this moon is the night’s good fortune.
Pinned high above rooftops,
at two, it consoles worried insomniacs,
is a goodnight tip for
tired waitresses looking up
and bored bartenders closing down.
At half-past five,
the lure of its luster is bright enough
to wake every paperboy
in time to groggily pursue their rounds.
But at seven, the sun begins
to burn a hole in the sky’s front pocket.
Dull as penny, this moon has
been replaced by a newly minted dime.
Merely loose change,
the night’s good fortune is deposited
with a careless wish into
the day’s deep well of forgetfulness.

Nobody stops to listen for the splash.

A Delicate Truth / John Le Carré

John Le Carré has made a career of writing numerous political thrillers that focus on government functionaries grappling with the ethical issues surrounding their decision-making. He focuses on the psychological issues rather than the physical aspects of their profession. For those who crave political thrillers featuring heroic actions, Le Carré’s novels will disappoint. His books are short on action, concentrating on the moral issues surrounding the events he describes. While his stories are cleverly constructed, they are not outstanding works of fiction.

This novel focuses on a counter-terrorist operation by an ambitious British Foreign Office minister with an American private contractor. The operation goes awry and results in the deaths of innocent civilians. In its aftermath, the outcome is quickly covered up by those involved. The novel concentrates on several individuals involved in the operation and their efforts to reveal what actually occurred, highlighting the senseless loss of life associated with the endeavor.

Le Carré is a master of exploring the moral ambiguity of such covert operations. Unlike most writing in this genre, his intent is to expose the emotional effects that such operations have on the characters. The conflicts in his books are internal, rather than external.

A Delicate Truth follows his usual formula. That said, having read a number of the author’s novels, this one suffers the same fate as the others. While it is engaging throughout, it fails to embed itself into a reader’s memory bank. It’s the perfect so-called “summer read”. It captures the reader’s interest, but most likely will be quickly forgotten in a quest for the next quick read. His characters are interesting, yet bland in spite of their assigned moral deliberations, and so they do not make for great literature.

If one is seeking that intriguing escape from everyday life, this book will make for a captivating read. Just don’t expect to be haunted long by the story. Le Carré’s novels are superior to most that are published in this genre, but this, like his others, lacks enough depth to make it memorable.

Good-Bye To All That / Robert Graves

In this memoir, first published in 1929, poet Robert Graves recounts his (and Britain’s) loss of innocence as a result of World War I. In the first chapters, he sketches his childhood days, schooling, and how he began to write poetry. But a large part of the book is taken up by his experience as a soldier during the First World War.

Because of his college background, he entered the conflict first as a lieutenant, then a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He goes to great lengths to show what daily life was like in the trenches, highlighting the incompetent leadership that led to the senseless slaughter of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. What I found most fascinating was the friendship he struck up with another well-known poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who was an officer in the same unit. It is amazing that both men continued to turn out critically acclaimed poetry in the midst of such a bloody conflict.

Graves depicts the growing disillusionment he began to feel about the Great War. Even so, he remained loyal to the cause for the sake of the soldiers serving under his command. In 1916, he was seriously wounded and sent back to England. Although the condition did not have a true name at the time, he recounts how post-traumatic stress continued to haunt him in the years that followed.

This book was hastily written at a time when Graves was leaving England­­­–he thought forever–and when he was in need of money. The haste shows, as the author jumps awkwardly from story to story, often switching topics at random. While the war is his primary focus, he also touches upon the rise of feminism, socialism, the loss of his religious faith, and the various spats he had with other writers at the time.

Good-bye To All That does not rank as one of Graves’ best works. After 1929, he went on to write more than 120 books as a poet, novelist, translator, and historian. There are far better books available about the trench warfare in the First World War. It will probably be best appreciated by fans of Graves who want to know more about the author’s earliest days before he became an established writer.

Butcher’s Crossing / John Williams

John Williams is not a well-known author. During his lifetime, he wrote just three novels, all of which received glowing reviews, and one that won a National Book Award. Butcher’s Crossing was first published in 1960. It tells the story of a young Bostonian, Will Andrews, who in the 1870s leaves the civilized environs of Harvard to travel to the Wild West. Inspired by Thoreau and the back to nature movement, Will is determined to escape America’s increasingly industrialized society.

Andrews ends up in Butcher’s Crossing, a small town in Kansas used as a launching spot by hunters in pursuit of the hides of buffalo and other big game animals. While it is not yet evident, the herds they seek have already been slaughtered to the point where they are nearing extinction. Flush with cash, Andrews hooks up with a hunter who tells him that he knows of a place in Colorado, in a hidden valley, where an immense buffalo herd still roams. Lured by the prospect, Will agrees to fund an expedition guaranteed to net them a fortune in hides.

Setting out with the hunter and two other people, Andrews is sure that he will discover his “true self” in the wilderness. The hunter is not just telling tales, he truly does know of a valley that has yet to be discovered by human kind. In the novel, Williams details their difficult journey to reach this remote area, and graphically describes the slaughter that results when they finally do discover an Eden populated by thousands of buffalo and other wildlife. Arriving late in the summer, the hunt so captivates the members of the expedition that they are taken by surprise by an early winter storm, which traps them until the following spring.

Williams’ prose is not poetic, but it is descriptive and captivating. Using gritty detail, he describes the hardships encountered along the way, as well as what it took to survive a brutal winter in the Colorado Rockies. Rather than presenting a blow-by-blow account of the expedition, the author focuses on a handful of brilliantly staged set pieces. Be it the two days when the men and their horses and oxen are forced to go without much-needed water, a forty page account of the hunt itself, the snowstorm that came close to killing them all, or the perils of crossing a swollen river in spring, he kept me fully enrapt.

What makes this novel special is Williams’ non-judgmental account of the expedition and the conflicts that result when the four men are forced to spend the long winter together in close proximity. The details of the killing of the buffalo herd will be upsetting to many. But the intent of the book is not to judge the expedition by today’s ethical concerns. It simply focuses on what the character Andrews experienced and learned through this year spent in the wilderness.

John Williams is an author who strives in this book to realistically recreate an important piece of our history. It also introduces the reader to a gifted author. Butcher’s Crossing, especially in its concluding chapters, captures the folly and greed that has driven the American economy since its earliest days.