Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Magazine Review: The American Scholar Spring 1977

Magazine Review: The American Scholar Spring 1977 Edited by Joseph Epstein

The American Scholar is a quarterly production of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, published since 1932.  Its primary focus is non-fiction essays, but it also features poetry, book reviews and since 2006 fiction.  I happened across an old issue, was intrigued by one of the essay titles, and decided to review it.  At the time it was published, I was in my sophomore year of high school, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and James Dobson founded Focus on the Family.

The American Scholar Spring 1977

Leading off the issue is “The Despairing Optimist” by René Dubos.  It discusses the various international conferences held during the 1970s.  The essay describes their well-meant aims and somewhat less than impressive results.  Professor Dubos reckons that the best approach is to set world-wide goals but work out individual approaches to getting things done as different areas of the world need specific tactics to deal with their specific problems.  “Think globally, act locally.” (Professor Dubos is said to be one of the possible originators of the motto when he was advising the Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.)

“Observing the Sabbath” by Aristides (probably a pen name) is about the custom of Sunday as a day of rest, and how that was changing in the modern age.  Less a span of enforced inactivity, and more a time of enjoying oneself as religion became less of a factor and just having some time off work became more of one.

“Freedom of Expression: Too Much of a Good Thing?” by John Sparrow talks about whether there should be laws against obscenity and pornography.  He discusses various objections to these laws, and attempts to address them.  On balance, Mr. Sparrow is in favor of having at least some laws on the subject, even if it’s difficult to precisely define obscenity without actually being subjected to it.  Generally, he seems to favor “community standards” laws.

“The Limits of Ethnicity” by Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill addresses the then recent upswing in “ethnic pride” groups in the United States, and they note that at least part of the impetus appears to have come from the civil rights advances of African-American people.  “Racism is a WASP problem, we Croatian-Americans or Italian-Americans have no culpability here–besides, we’re oppressed groups too.”  The authors feared attempts to re-segregate neighborhoods by moving all the people from one ethnic heritage together, making those of other heritages uncomfortable.

One of the weaker essays is “The Tyranny of Harmony” by John P. Sisk.  It starts out talking about the music of the spheres, which supposedly had perfect harmony, and eventually gets around to suggesting that an excessive love of harmony resulted in Nazi Germany.  The logic is forced.

“Rest in Prose: The Art of the Obituary” is by William Haley, who was editor of the London Times for many years.  He speaks of the obituary as a literary form, as history, and as an editorial comment on the worth of a person.  He’s especially enamored of the obituaries published by the Times.  Mr. Haley is a good writer and I enjoyed this essay.

“A Literature Against the Future” by James Stupple is the essay I bought the magazine for.  He notes that in the 1970s science fiction had become the subject of serious university study.  (Though he’s quick to point out that the colleges offering these courses tended to be second-rank.)  His main premise is that SF isn’t really serious, important literature.  Like many critics in the 1970s, he thought that real science showing that Mars is lifeless would kill the field, leaving only science fantasy.  Indeed, he suggests that science fiction would quickly become no more relevant than Kabuki or country western.  (Well, okay, maybe country western.)  From our perspective in the future, it’s easy to see where Mr. Stupple went wrong.  (The only other thing I could find by him in a Google search was half an essay on Ray Bradbury; he liked Bradbury’s stuff as fantasy.)

The final essay is “The Provincial Towns” by Barnett Singer, who wrote about his experiences the previous year touring the less-populated areas of France.  He chronicles the dying of an old way of life, but then old ways of life are always dying.  It’s rather sentimental, but he also notes that the young people seem okay with the changes.

The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t care much for.  The best of the lot is “On the Language Which Writes the Lecturer” by Jeanne Murray Walker.  “English merely comments on the structure of another language concerning which nothing can be said.”

There are several book reviews, all of books I have never heard of.  The most positive review is of The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.  Sadly, despite the enthusiasm of the reviewer, it sounds dreadful.  There are also a lot of book ads.  Most of these are the barest snippets that seem to have been written by someone who doesn’t know anything about selling books.

The other kind of advertisement is for colleges–apparently the main audience was expected to be bright high school students looking for a place to get further education.  Saint Olaf!

Last is Letters to the Editor, very erudite people criticizing essays and reviews (in one case, a book reviewer is allowed to respond.)

It’s an interesting assortment of subjects, most of which don’t feel dated.  If you happen to spot a copy of this magazine at a garage sale, it’s worth a look.  The American Scholar is still published, and you can read more recent essays at their website here: https://theamericanscholar.org/about-us/

 

Book Review: The Partnership

Book Review: The Partnership by Pamela Katz

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This copy was a bound galley, and changes have been made in the published edition (most notably, a proper index.)

The Partnership

The Weimar Republic, Germany after World War One and before the rise of the Nazis, was a time of great change.  The Kaiser had been dethroned, militarism had been discredited with large sections of the population, and social movement was greater than ever before.  But at the same time, the economy was dreadful, many in Germany felt they could have won the war if they weren’t “betrayed”, and political extremists rioted in the streets.  This was the crucible in which the partnership of playwright Berthold Brecht and composer Kurt Weill was born.

The two men, brilliant on their own, inspired each other to greatness in their two most famous collaborations, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as a handful of lesser works.  This volume concentrates on the years of their partnership and how it was facilitated by three important women, actors Lotte Lenya and Helene Weigel, and writer Elisabeth Hauptmann.

The partnership only lasted a few years, with brief reprises necessitated by their joint ownership of their plays.  While there were many factors involved in the breakup (political differences, diverging artistic aims, Weill becoming independently successful in America), the author posits that the main reason the team splintered was that neither man could stand not being in charge.  They hadn’t quite realized this during their initial creative period, but as the political climate changed, and each had his own goals in mind, it became obvious.

Brecht comes across as a deeply unpleasant person, the type of man who has three children by three different women before he even had a proper career.   It feels like the biographer bends over backwards to excuse Brecht’s behavior towards his wives and mistresses (especially as he hypocritically expected them to be faithful to him.)  He seems to have believed that his superior creativity and artistic vision gave him license to run roughshod over anyone in his path.  It didn’t go over so well in America, where no one was impressed by his European reputation and he didn’t speak the language.

Weill, by contrast, though he had his flaws, seems to have known how to adapt his desire for creative control to the demands of Broadway, working with many excellent writers.

The book goes into great detail about the production of Threepenny; rehearsals were disastrous, entire parts had to be cut at the last minute, and it took several scenes in before the audience figured out which play they were watching.  The song “Mack the Knife” was written and scored in 24 hours as a simultaneous concession to and dig at the actor playing MacHeath, as he’d demanded a song about how awesome his character was.

There’s also quite a bit of focus on the women; Lenya and Weigel brought their husbands’ work to life on the stage, and after they became widows truly kept the legacies alive as well as coming into their own careers.  Hauptmann is a bit harder to read; as the translator who brought Brecht many of the works he freely adapted, and probably much more involved in his writing than was ever acknowledged by either of them, she’s a shadowy figure.  The Weimar Republic gave women new freedom, but it was still in relation to powerful or creative men.

The book skimps on the parts of Brecht and Weill’s careers that did not involve each other; you’ll need to read their separate biographies for those. The writing gets a bit pompous at times, and there’s some use of gratuitous mind-reading, along the lines of “Weill would have enjoyed the breezes.”

There are extensive end-notes with bits that didn’t fit into the main text, and a good bibliography.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Brecht, Weill and theater in general.

And if somehow you haven’t heard it before, here’s Lotte Lenya singing “Pirate Jenny” for the BBC.

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